New Algae Biofuel: Holy Hot Sugar, Batman!

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

When we say hot sugar, we mean a new generation of low cost industrial sugars that could help pull the biofuel market out of dependence on conventional crop based sugars. That leaves the field clear for the algae biofuel sector, and that’s where things start to get interesting.

A company called Proterro came across our radar last fall for just such an approach, which basically turns the first-generation biofuel model on its head. Instead of taking apart plants to extract sugars for processing into biofuel, Proterro has figured out a way to get a micro-algae called cyanobacteria to secrete the “hot sugar” sucrose.

algae biofuel
Industrial sugar production from cyanobacteria Courtesy of Proterro

A Different Approach To Algae Biofuel

It’s worth noting up front that there are already several promising cost-effective pathways to extracting oils directly from algae and microalgae (here, here, and here for example), but there is plenty of room in this emerging fuel market for something different, namely, using algae to produce a sugar feedstock for fermentation into fuels and other products.

Also, for the record, cyanobacteria is commonly referred to as blue-green algae, but as its formal name indicates, it is actually a bacteria and not a form of marine plant life.

When we covered the news from Proterro last fall, the company had already won a US patent for its proprietary strain of cyanobacteria. In the latest development, Proterro has obtained a notice of allowance from the US patent office for the structural platform — a photobioreactor — that enables the bacteria to produce sugars at a highly efficient rate, in a process that uses carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water.

The Proterro Photobioreactor

According to Proterro, the photobioreactor is 30 times more productive than sugar cane, on an acreage basis, in terms of producing a “fermentation-ready” stream of sucrose.

That translates into a lower cost for sugar production, and part of the reason for that savings is the aforementioned photobioreactor.

Resembling a big earthbound balloon from the outside, the photobioreactor is actually a sturdy (withstanding Force 1 hurricane winds) built environment made from off-the-shelf materials.  Instead of using vats, pipes, or horizontal cultivating beds, the cyanobacteria grow on vertical fabric walls.

Before we move on let’s pause here and thank our friends over at Biofuels Digest for introducing us to the phrase “hot sugar.” Who knew?

Biofuels and Carbon Dioxide Capture

If a bell went off in your head when you saw carbon dioxide mentioned in the context of biofuels, you are in good company.

With a pilot facility under its belt in Florida, Proterro is already prepared to scale up and hook up with carbon dioxide emitters to feed its cyanobacteria. Utility companies and ethanol plants seem to be tops on its list, but there are numerous other opportunities out there for using microorganisms to capture industrial waste gasses and convert them into useful products.

A New Zealand company, for example, is already active in the field of capturing and converting emissions from steel mills.

That approach makes a lot more sense than some of the other carbon sequestration strategies under discussion these days, namely pumping it underground.

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Keep up with all the latest clean tech news from CleanTechnica: subscribe to our newsletter.

(readers please note: this post has been updated: the facility is a pilot and ethanol plants are another potential CO2 source).

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Videos

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

CleanTechnica's Comment Policy

Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3393 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey