The first wave of algal activity followed the OPEQ oil embargo that generated considerable R&D working towards energy independence. That first wave culminated in the birth of the Department of Energy (DOE) and, eventually, the choice of corn as the primary feedstock for biofuels. Political, rather than scientific, decision processes pushed 90% of renewable energy funding support for corn ethanol. Today, over two thirds of renewable fuels subsidies go to corn ethanol, which amounts to over $10 billion a year.

The recent DOE biofuels roadmap continues heavy reliance on corn, in spite of the fact that corn ethanol is not sustainable due to its heavy consumption of fertile soils, fresh water, fossil fuels, fertilizers and fossil agricultural chemicals. Ethanol consumes 33% of US corn grown on over 40 million prime cropland acres and creates a dead zone from nitrogen and phosphorus run-off into the Gulf of Mexico larger than the state of New Jersey. Ethanol production from corn produces as much damage to the Gulf of Mexico every year as the BP spill in 2010, but the damage is not as visible and we cannot blame a foreign country. The Renewable Fuel Standard targets for 2022 project production of 15 billion gallons of ethanol a year but only 100 million gallons of algal oil a year, which is the equivalent of a single average-sized ethanol plant.

DOE also announced the investment of up to $24 million for three research groups to tackle key hurdles in the commercialization of algae-based biofuels.

Sustainable Algal Biofuels Consortium: Led by Arizona State University, this team will receive up to $6 million to test the acceptability of algal biofuels as replacements for petroleum-based fuels. Tasks include investigating biochemical conversion of algae to fuels and products, and analyzing physical chemistry properties of algal fuels and fuel intermediates. An excellent video showing the Laboratory for Algal Research and Biotechnology is available here.

Raceways at the ASU LARB Field Site

Consortium for Algal Biofuels Commercialization: Led by the University of California, San Diego, this group will receive up to $9 million and concentrate on developing algae as a robust biofuels feedstock. Tasks include investigating new approaches for algal crop protection, algal nutrient utilization and recycling, and developing genetic tools

Cellana, LLC Consortium: Led by Cellana in Hawaii, this group will receive up to $9 million to examine large-scale production of fuels and feed from microalgae grown in seawater. Tasks include integrating new algal harvesting technologies with pilot-scale cultivation test beds, and developing marine microalgae as animal feed for the aquaculture industry.

Several other recent events have enhanced the algal industry.

Aurora Biofuels raised an additional $15 million in a recent funding round led by Oak Investment Partners, with the continued support of Gabriel Venture Partners and Noventi Ventures. This third round of financing brings the total amount to more than $40 million. The new funding will be used to support the continued path to commercialization for Aurora Biofuels advanced algae biofuel technology.

Honeywell’s UOP division received $1.5 million in a cooperative agreement with the DOE for a project to demonstrate technology to capture carbon dioxide and produce algae for use in biofuel and energy production. The funding will be used for the design of a demonstration system that will capture carbon dioxide from exhaust stacks at Honeywell’s manufacturing facility in Hopewell, VA, and deliver the captured CO2 to a cultivation system for algae.

Green Jet Fuel produced using Honeywell UOP’s green jet fuel process technology powered a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet flight on April 22, 2010 as part of the Navy’s efforts to certify the use of alternative fuels in military aircraft. Honeywell’s UOP and Total Petrochemical demonstrated the technology to produce plastics from methanol which will enable the use of feedstocks other than petroleum to produce plastics and other petrochemicals.

Solazyme announced an R&D agreement with Unilever to develop oil derived from algae for use in soaps and other personal care products. The agreement follows the culmination of a yearlong collaboration between Solazyme and Unilever, in which Solazyme’s renewable algal oils were tested successfully in Unilever product formulations, including food products.

Roy Curtiss, director of the ASU Biodesign Institute announced that their team, led by Xinyao Liu, had successfully trained cyanobacteria to release their precious oil cargo outside the cell in a process called “milking.” The technology uses the thioesterase enzyme to separate lipids from their complex protein carriers and allow fatty acids to pass through the cell walls through diffusion. Milking cyanobacteria enables continuous production of oils and a three-fold increase in lipid production rates.

The DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded an $8.8 million Technology Investment Agreement to DuPont and Bio Architecture Lab for the development of a process to convert sugars produced by macroalgae into next-generation biofuels from isobutanol.  Isobutanol is produced naturally during the fermentation of carbohydrates and is the by-product of the decay process of organic matter. Isobutanol is used in the production of lacquers, coating, plastics, rubbers and is used in the food industry as a flavoring agent.

Fluid Imaging Technologies has announced a break-through algal imaging product demonstrated at the 2010 Algae World Summit in San Diego. The FlowCAM® particle analysis instrument provides rapid characterization, imaging and monitoring of particles and cells in fluids. FlowCAM takes hundreds of high-resolution, digital images of individual algae cells in a discrete sample or a continuous flow in seconds, providing data on up to 30 parameters, including count, size, shape, concentration and lipid content. All images and data are then saved for further analysis using proprietary image management software. Fluid Imaging Technologies has provided Lone Star Biotechnology Institute, part of the Lone Star Community College in Texas, a FlowCAM imaging particle analysis instrument to support the institute’s algae research program which will permit them to accurately monitor algae growth.

Fluid Imaging’s FlowCAM

A group of Korean and American scientists at Stanford University discovered how to tap electricity directly from the algae. They take the algae`s chemical energy that is stored in the form of starch, sugar and other molecules from Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. This fascinating work is very preliminary and recovers a tiny amount of electricity. Separately, an Irish research team found they could fabricate a battery from algal components that is 100 times lighter than traditional batteries.

This new wave of algal technologies will move the industry forward. Commercial algaculture will go from thousands to millions of gallons in the next few years. While much of the planned production will be for biofuels, the result will also include millions of tons of protein and co-products. Biofuel production will also advance our understanding of algal cultivation, harvest and extraction for the many co-products available from algal biomass.

Needless to say, for a four billion year old life form, we are at the very beginning of its modern applications. And its future benefits to our world are just beginning to see the light of day.