Will biofuel from algae look like Big Oil or Big Agriculture?

October 8, 2009

Hundreds of companies and laboratories are racing to find an economical way to make “green crude” from algae. The biofuel industry is grappling with a series of hurdles, which players readily recognized at a summit this week in San Diego and we cover in this story.

One question asked by one of the sector’s early leaders is will biofuel from algae look like Big Oil or Big Agriculture.

Steve Mayfield, who directs a new center for algae biotechnology at the University of California, San Diego, believes it should be more like agriculture.

“We’re not going to grow it in the lab … We are going to grow it on rice patties,” Mayfield said at the Algae Biomass Summit in San Diego.

Mayfield also helped found Sapphire Energy, a privately held company that has pulled in $100 million from venture capitalists. The company is looking at gene-based techniques to create a strain of algae that can be grown and harvested on a massive scale.

“What we need to do is domesticate algae. We are taking wild type strains and asking them to do what never was asked to do or evolved to do in the wild,” Mayfield said, pointing to how genetic changes have boosted crop yields.

Photo credit: Reuters

10 comments

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My only concern is tax payer subsidies.Big oil can make a profit without subsidies. But if any of these green energy companies can not do the same, then I would hardly call this a viable business!There is a difference between an energy business and an energy social service agency!

Posted by Heather | Report as abusive

I’m afraid it will look more like Lehmann Brothers: a large sink for money, with very little to show for it. Closed systems are out of the question, as the investment costs are about a 1000-times higher than for traditional agriculture, while yields are only a bit higher, whatever proponents promise. Worst is that the energy investment in the cultivation systems, and energy required to run and maintain the systems can never recovered.As for open systems, biomass yields are the same ballfield as tropical agriculture, but again investment and running costs are much higher. Just think of the energy required to concentrate the thin algaesoup, then extract the oil and convert it to biodiesel.By the way, quite a few of the recent startups have already folded again, because they could not deliver on promises. But, their managers were probably well-salaried as long as the investors believed the fairy-tales.

Posted by Jan | Report as abusive

Well, at least it is better to fund this algae research than yet another cash-4-clunkers or Homebuyer tax give away program.

Posted by Johnny A BO | Report as abusive

Great, now good food growing land and water supply across the world can be used for important things….keeping our highways full of cars transporting one person each.

Posted by Tony Wilsmore | Report as abusive

Organic conversion of photons into usable energy is more efficient than we have been able to achieve with solid state materials. The trick is in harvesting the extremely efficient system designed by nature to make an extremely inefficient fuel we can burn.If you look at any animal system and how energy efficient it is, there is no man made system that can even come close to the complexity while being as energy efficient.BTW, all the energy that keeps this planet ‘running’ comes from the sun. If we could only harvest a fraction of the energy that comes through the sky everyday we wouldn’t even be having an energy discussion.I am not really convinced that oil has a long term viability either. It just happens to high a high energy density, abundant, cheap and technologically very easy to convert into mechanical energy. The internal combustion engine hasn’t changed much since it has been invented in the 1800s. It is horribly inefficient to run. Looking at how much technology has advanced, it blows my mind that the best we can come up with is harvesting the expansion energy during combustion of an organic liquid. Really? We don’t even capture any of the heat energy! In fact, we do everything we can to bleed the heat energy away. The economics of the fuel is what has impeded the type of investment needed to pull us out of the 1800s.I sincerely hope we can make a little technological progress and pull ourselves out of the oil era.About me – PhD Biotechnology, Daily Driver – Viper V10 (Never said I was green)

Posted by tedg | Report as abusive

For some reason, I caught a one sentence comment by a person at National Geographic state, “Its the wrong direction.” I just kind of stood out as authoritative. I’m into microbrews though. Hydrogen?

For some reason, I caught a one sentence comment by a person at National Geographic state, “Its the wrong direction.” It just kind of stood out as authoritative. I’m into microbrews though. Hydrogen?(sorry last one said I)

A process for biomass to liquid fuel with high energy density by a process that is net energy positive- a conundrum that shows very little promise. What has been done over a million years by nature is to be replicated on the algae farm in a few hours with the condition that the whole process must end up energy positive. That is not going to be easy unless the laws of thermodynamics are turned on their head. Looks like we have no option but to be energy conservative till the day we learn how to tap nuclear fusion energy efficiently.

Watch for unintended consequences. A bio-engineered algae may change the ecosphere by outcompeting other species that benefit the planet. Don’t think it can happen? Ask Floridians about the “love bug”.

i think it is dumb gross and crazy for them to do that

Posted by hipeoplemyopion | Report as abusive