Kent BioEnergy, With Decades of Algae Experience, Predicts Biofuel Innovation Will Come From “A Guy on a Tractor”
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from the north and poorly treated wastewater from the south. Van Olst says Kent BioEnergy has developed methods that use algae to remove most of the phosphorous and nitrogen contaminants from the Whitewater River before it flows into the Salton Sea.
As a result, the company now holds a variety of patents and exclusive licenses for aquaculture wastewater treatment systems, algae-based water recycling systems, and algae-based environmental remediation technology. It also has patents pending for making algae easier to harvest, methods for maintaining algae monocultures (ensuring that a pond has just one species of algae), and for genetically modifying algae to enhance algal production of valuable oils that can be used to make fuels.
While many algae-based energy technologies have just begun to develop system designs, Kent BioEnergy has been refining its systems development under Massingill since he joined the company in 1980. Under federal grants intended to promote advanced technologies and small business innovation, the company has developed systems for producing dense monoculture populations of microalgae in high-rate, constantly circulating ponds. The company probably has received more than $12 million in government grants for technology development since 1984, Toyonaga says, with private investors contributing an additional $18 million.
The company also has worked since the mid-1980s with Clemson University researchers to develop a variety of proprietary processes for efficiently growing and harvesting algae. Van Olst says harvesting in particular is the sort of basic-but-tricky problem that a venture-backed rival might easily overlook. It’s not a trivial issue, Van Olst says, because algae basically have the same density as the water where they grow. You can’t just use a net to scoop out the algae. (It’s possible to use a centrifuge to separate the algae, but Van Olst says it is too costly.)
Because of the company’s broad experience, Van Olst says Kent BioEnergy has adopted a multipurpose strategy that emphasizes a systems approach and seeks to maximize efficiencies by using algae in many different ways. For example, algae can be optimized to produce methane gas in an anaerobic digester, and the leftover biomass sludge can be used as livestock feed or as an agricultural soil amendment. Because algae absorbs carbon dioxide, Van Olst also is intrigued with the concept of developing techniques for using algae ponds to capture carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pumped out by coal and gas-powered power plants.
So hypothetically, at least, algae could produce the methane gas used to fuel a power plant and also absorb at least some of the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Van Olst says very few competitors developing algae-biofuels technologies have been working at the same scale as Kent BioEnergy. The company, which now has 26 employees in San Diego and Imperial County, operates algae production ponds on a 250-acre desert site near Mecca, CA, and it has acquired an additional 350 acres along the western shore of the Salton Sea. But Massingill says making algae biofuels economical will likely require expanding algae production to an agricultural scale that could require 10,000 acres of algal growing ponds.
“It’s going to end up being a form of farming,” Van Olst says. “The products that we’re making are not that economical… We’re not making liquid gold here. We’re making a commodity product, and it has to be done efficiently.”