Level the Playing Field for Biofuels

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) announced this week his intent to introduce bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate that would help level the playing field for advanced biofuels such as algae. He wants to accomplish this by reforming the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) to make it technology agnostic. Of the 36 billion gallons required by the RFS, up to 15 billion gallons can come from corn-based ethanol while the remaining gallons are a mix of biodiesel and advanced biofuels but cellulosic fuels (ethanol) are heavily favored.

Udall’s decision came after he toured New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Energy Research Laboratory where he spent time discussing the state’s growth in the biofuels sector with NMSU President Barbara Couture. He also met with researchers in the Algal Bioenergy Program. It should come as no surprise that Udall found the algae research interesting because NMSU is one of 16 other research institutions that are part of a consortium with Los Alamos National Laboratory that received a $49 million DOE grant to study the commercialization of algae-based fuels.

The bill will be supported by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and the the two intend on introducing it after the Senate returns from its August break. One goal of the proposed bill is to remove the cellulosic biofuel carve-out and replace it with a feedstock neutral category that includes all advanced biofuels including algae, cellulosic and other next-gen fuels. Similar legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House by Reps. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) and Jay Inslee (D-WA).

“Congress shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers when it comes to the use of emerging technologies,” said Udall. “This bill simply puts all advanced biofuels on a level playing field and lets the market determine which emerging technologies prove most useful.”

Udall is a long-time supporter of the “Do It All” energy approach and is a strong advocate of a national energy policy that includes all forms of energy such as wind, solar, biofuels, natural gas, enhanced oil recovery, clean coal technology and nuclear power.

“The West and my home state of New Mexico are rich in renewable energy opportunities like wind and solar and advanced biofuels. This legislation is an important step in making sure we’re taking full advantage of all the energy technologies our country has to offer,” added Udall.

Continuous Algae Harvesting Network Developed

OriginOil has announced that it has developed a real-time control network to supervise continuous algae harvesting operations aimed for large scale algae production sites. The network, code named “Green Stick,” will be installed at Australian algae producer MDB Energy’s power plant test site. In this configuration, the system will interface with MBD’s own growth control system and integrate its operations with the Single Step Extraction and downstream concentration and separation processes.

“Anyone harvesting algae at large scale has to deal with literally hundreds of variables in real time,” said Paul Reep, OriginOil’s Senior VP of Technology. “That’s why we built this dynamic system that can adjust harvest settings on the fly.”

The company says that there are hundreds of interactions that are critical to automate and scale large production operations including algae growth, detwatering, flocculation, cell lysing and oil recovery and have been primarily done manually. Their technology automates the entire process. The system is managed by a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System (SCADA) that connects the biology and engineering with high throughput process control.

OriginOil recently filed for a patent of the new control technology; this is its 16th patent application. Inventors include Reep and Gavin Grey, senior director of engineering.

Algae Meal Performs as Dairy Cattle Feed

With the demand for meat rising in countries like China and India, there is a shortage of protein in the marketplace. Therefore, one of the hopeful co-products of algal biofuels is algae meal. PetroAlgae has announced that after completion of a third-party feed trial, its micro-crop meal performs as well as alfalfa in dairy cattle diets. The global market for dairy feed from alfalfa alone is estimated at 400 million metric tons by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The study encompassed a continuous 6-week feeding trial of a statistically significant sample of 36 dairy cows living in barns housed at the University of Minnesota. It measured the algae meal against a 17.5 percent protein alfalfa diet and measured nutrient intake, milk yield and composition. With the positive results, PetroAlgae anticipates its micro-crop meal will be highly competitive in the feed market.

The University of Minnesota study is the first to validate PetroAlgae micro-crop meal in the dairy diet against the industry standard. Several key findings included algae meal having higher dairy efficiency values, higher energy values than alfalfa, and algae meal matched the alfalfa diet in milk, milk yield, body score, and body weight.

“The results of this study show that PetroAlgae micro-crop meal is a desirable ingredient for high producing dairy cattle and that it performed comparably to high-protein alfalfa meal,” said Dr. Noah Litherland, who performed the study at the University of Minnesota. “We are encouraged to see this product perform so well against one of the more universally understood products in dairy nutrition.”

Litherland added, “There is also an intriguing opportunity to alter the lipid composition of the meat and milk for added human health benefit.”

Texas Looks to Algae As Next Cash Crop

According to Texas AgriLife Research scientists in Corpus Christi, microalgae may be the next cash crop. There are an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 species of microscopic freshwater and marine microalgae, yet only 35,000 species have been described. Researchers around the globe are trying to discover the best algae species for producing biofuels.

“It’s a huge, untapped source of fuel, food, feed, pharmaceuticals and even pollution-busters,” said Dr. Carlos Fernandez, a crop physiologist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi. He is studying the physiological responses of microalgae to the environment.

Fernandez said researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of discovering algae’s secrets. Yet he believes farmers will one day soon be growing microalgae on marginal land that won’t compete with fertile farmland or for fresh water. One of the secret’s that needs to be unlocked is how to most effectively grow algae. Therefore, Fernandez constructed a microalgae physiology laboratory to study how algae is affected by temperature, salinity, nutrients, light levels, and carbon dioxide.

“We have four bioreactors in which we grow microalgae to determine the basic physiological responses that affect its growth,” explained Fernandez. “We will then integrate these responses into a simulator model, a tool we can use in the management of larger, outdoor systems.”

The study is also looking to find algae that can produce large amounts of lipids or fats, that are converted to biofuels such as biodiesel or biojet fuel. In addition, the research team, that includes members from Texas AgriLife Mariculture labs in Flour Bluff, are looking at a residue that remains after the lipids are extracted as a source of animal feed. Finally, they will also evaluate algae as a source of fertilizer for soil.

Fermandez said Corpus Christi is the perfect place to conduct the research for several reasons including access to seawater to grow the microalgae, large acres of marginal land and lower evaporation rates than in arid areas so water requirements are reduced. In addition, he noted that local power plants and oil refineries are good CO2 sources and there is a good network of higher education institutions in the region.

Researchers Study Alage in Roman Baths for Biofuels

Here is an interesting place to find feedstock for biodiesel – the Roman Baths. University of Bath researchers in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry are studying the algae growing in the Roman Baths as a source to produce biodiesel. The algae, growing in high temperature waters of the bath, may be a key to meeting growing biofuel needs.

Holly Smith-Baedorf, a PhD student, has made this project her own. “Algae are usually happiest growing at temperatures around 25 degrees celsius and that can limit the places in which it can be cultivated on a large scale,” said Smith-Baedorf. “Areas where these ideal conditions are available also usually make good arable areas and are therefore needed for food production. In an ideal world we would like to grow algae in desert areas where there are huge expanses of land that don’t have other uses, but the temperatures in these zones are too high for algae to flourish.”

Where the conditions seem to be ideal are the Roman Baths. Smith-Baedorf explains that algae cells are quite versatile and can change any of their characteristics in response to their environment. Therefore, the protected environment provided by the baths make it an ideal environment for adaptation and thus research and the team has identified seven different types of algae in the baths.

Another area she is studying is the ability to remove the oil from the algae – an important element to producing cost-effective algal biofuels. Therefore, the research team is also looking for a species of algae with a weaker cell wall, high oil content and the possibility to use cheap filtration techniques, keeping production costs low.

The research team is led by Professor Matt Davidson and also includes collaborators from the University of the West of England. The team is growing seven types of algae harvested from the Roman Baths over a range of temperatures and comparing them to ‘control’ algae known for being good for producing biodiesel at normal temperatures.

Professor Rod Scott added, “The results of this study will help us identify whether there is a particular algae species among the seven identified in the Roman Baths that is well adapted to growing at higher temperatures and also suitable for producing sufficient amounts of biodiesel to make wide-scale production viable.”

Ethanol Attacks in California Continue

Policymakers in California are once again attacking its ethanol industry. Led by California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), she has plans in the works to limit incentives for production and use of biofuels that would cause taxes to be raised, an increase in use of foreign oil, reduce jobs, and increase pollution. According to the California Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (CEVC), Sen. Feinstein has “long harbored what many observers feel is an irrational vendetta against ethanol.” This despite the fact that the state consumers 20 percent of the nation’s gasoline and more than 60 percent of the gas comes from imported oil.

Feinstein’s goal is to reduce, if not end, California’s as well as the country’s use of corn-based ethanol. On a national level she co-authored legislation that ended support for current ethanol programs. Less than two weeks ago, the Senate came to a compromise to end ethanol incentives via the Ethanol Reform and Deficit Reduction Act, sponsored by Feinstein, John Thune (R-SD) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The compromise included an end to the ethanol tariff as well as to the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) that gave the ethanol blender of record a 45 cent incentive to blend the fuel. Should the house pass the same measure, it would take effect on July 31, 2011.

The California Senator’s ire is not limited to corn-based ethanol, although the California Ethanol Producer Incentive Program is under fire and she is lobbying to increase gas taxes and ethanol blended fuel taxes in the state. In addition, she is gunning to limit funds dedicated to building biofuel infrastructure including the installation of E85 or blender pumps. If this isn’t enough, she is also attacking incentives for cellulosic and algal biofuels.

One industry that would suffer a dramatic setback should the federal legislation be signed into law, are those retailers who sell E85 (eighty five percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline). In California, the 50 plus retailers who sell E85 are looking at shutting off the pumps because they won’t be able to sell the fuel at competitive prices.

“If you were trying to stifle biofuel technology, increase reliance on imported oil, eliminate jobs, and increase pollution, you could not have done a better job than this,” said Joe Irvin, executive director of CEVC. “Senator Feinstein continues to talk about saving taxpayers money when she just pushed through this $1.1 billion increase in the federal fuel tax to California consumers by raising tax on ethanol blends from $13.6 cents to 18.1 cents.” Continue reading

Biofuel IPOs On The Rise

The biofuels industry is making a come-back with several successful IPOs (initial public offering) over the past few months. Today, KiOR announced its initial public offering of 10,000,000 shares of Class A common stock at $15 per share. The company raised nearly $138 million of proceeds from the IPO which occurred on June 24.

Other successful IPO’s include the much-awaited IPO of Gevo back in February. The company raised an estimated $123.3 million after setting the share price at $15. In total, the company sold 8.223 million shares. There were concerns as to what level of interest the IPO would generate after Amyris went public last September with less than stellar results. In total, Amyris raised $84.8 million after setting in shares at $16. The company had originally hoped to go out with an offer between $18-$20 a share.

But despite set-backs for the biofuels industry, the real IPO winner so far this year has been Solazyme who raised nearly $227 million – nearly double the money raised by others in the biofuels sector. The per share price was $18, ironically 10 percent higher than company execs predicted several weeks prior to the official IPO.

So why did Solazyme rake in the big bucks while the others merely fared well? While I am by no means a financial guru, I believe part of their success lay in the fact that Solazyme is already making profits by selling bioproducts and biochemicals. Earlier this year, the company launched a cosmetic product that is being sold in Sephora stores nationwide. The other companies, while they have contracts and are producing fuels at smaller scales, are not making profits yet. Therefore, investing in these companies is a bigger gamble.

Another reason why Solazyme’s strategy may be effective is that they are able to use their profits from their bioproducts and biochemicals to help fund it algal-biofuels research while companies like Gevo have no products yet. Therefore, Gevo needs to raise funds just to deploy its technology at commercial scale, which it is now doing. They have broken ground on the retrofit of an ethanol plant in Luverne, Minnesota.

With a solid showing on Nasdaq, at least for now, hopefully these second generation biofuels companies are paving the way for more IPOs and more private investment dollars – a much needed element if the industry is to move to commercialization.

Sydney, Australia Home of New Algal Biomass Facility

Algae.Tec Limited in collaboration with Manildra Group have announced the construction of an algae demonstration facility in Shoalhaven One, in Nowra south of Sydney, Australia. Manildra Group is the country’s largest ethanol producer. Algae.Tec Executive Roger Stroud said the partnership contract has been signed and final logistical plans are being made and submissions for permits are also in the works.

“The Algae.Tec algae photo-reactors will be sited next to main facility and take a carbon dioxide feed from the main ethanol fermenters,” said Stroud. “Algae.Tec is one of only a few advanced biofuels companies globally with a technology designed to grow algae on an industrial scale and produce valuable biofuels that replace increasingly expensive fossil fuels.”

According to Algae.Tec, their technology captures carbon pollution from power stations and manufacturing facilities which feeds into the algae growth system. Currently, photo-reactors are being assembled at their Algae Development & Manufacturing Centre in Atlanta, Georgia. These photo-reactors use one-tenth of the land that is required when growing algae in ponds and the company said their enclosed module system is designed to produce the highest yield of algae biomass in nearly any environment on Earth.

Navy Seahawk Helicopter Flies with Algae

The US Navy has successfully flown an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter test flight using a 50/50 blend of biojet fuel using Solazyme’s Solajet HRJ-5, derived 100 percent from algae. This test flight, which took place on June 20, marks the first military aircraft ever to fly on algal-based biojet fuel. Just last week, ASTM International gave preliminary specs and approval for biojet fuels derived from renewable feedstocks including algae. Formal approval is expected sometime in July.

“We applaud ASTM International and the ATA and CAAFI for their efforts to advance the world’s newest and most sustainable fuels for aviation,” said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO, Solazyme. “The aviation industry has demonstrated a strong leadership position in fuel supply diversification and sustainability, and today’s announcement is a major step in its efforts to commercialize advanced low-carbon biofuels.”

He continued by noting that Solazyme is honored to be working with the US Navy and DLA-Energy to drive forward the certification and approvals needed for advanced biofuels to play a major role in aviation. “The successful flight demonstration of the Seahawk helicopter on a 50/50 blend of Solajet®HRJ-5 and petroleum-derived jet fuel marks a significant milestone in this process, and reinforces the Navy’s commitment to securing our nation’s energy supply,” added Wolfson.

Solazyme has a partnership with Honeywell UOP to refine the fuel and has been working with them since 2009 on various US military contracts. The drop-in fuel requires no modifications to current engine technology or military logistics infrastructure.

Algae to Omega Chooses LumiGrow

Algae to Omega, an algae company focused on producing algae crops in vertical indoor farms, has chosen LumiGrow to provide its lighting solutions for its facility in Oakland Park, Florida. The LED efficient lights are being utilized to increase algae crop yield. The algae is used for high-value products including cosmetics, fish meal and nutritional supplements. During the day the algae farm receives natural sunlight, and now at night the algae will get constant light from the LED lights. Algae to Omega said that without these lights, they would need to double its space to produce the same amount of crops.

“As a company committed to green technologies, we were drawn to the LumiGrow solution’s demonstrated ability to cut energy use and costs by half versus traditional greenhouse lighting systems,” said Geronimos Dimitrelos, CEO of Algae to Omega. “But what really drove our selection is that the LumiGrow system’s adjustable color spectrum makes it the best choice for boosting algae growth. The algae grown under the 23 LumiGrow fixtures we have already installed is a vibrant healthy green.”

LumiGrow said that unlike other greenhouse lighting systems that emit broad swaths of color spectrum that plants cannot use, all the light emitted from their lighting system is used by the plants improving plant growth and health. In addition the system can be adjusted to meet the algae’s specific photosynthesis needs.

“Algae to Omega sets an example of how forward-thinking growers innovate to keep abreast of changing market conditions,” said Kevin Wells, CEO of LumiGrow. “We’re delighted that the LumiGrow solution is helping Algae to Omega realize their vision of a highly productive and cost-efficient vertical farm.”