Kent BioEnergy, With Decades of Algae Experience, Predicts Biofuel Innovation Will Come From “A Guy on a Tractor”
Jack Van Olst and Michael Massingill have an interesting perspective on the green gold rush underway in San Diego, where there has been a proliferation of startups focused on algae-based biofuels.
At a time when venture funds are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into startups that plan to make diesel, gasoline and jet fuel from algae, they say making biofuels is more of an agribusiness than an advanced biotechnology business. “If biofuels become a reality, they’re not going to be made in a laboratory somewhere—they’re going to be grown,” Massingill says. And if biofuels derived from algae are going to become economically viable, he says the solution is “not going to come from someone in a white lab coat. It going to come from a guy in blue jeans on a tractor.”
You could say they take a long view on the subject. Van Olst and Jim Carlberg are co-founders of San Diego-based Kent BioEnergy, a startup that has developed a variety of proprietary algae technologies over the past 37 years.
Van Olst told me their work began in 1970 when he and Carlberg began developing aquaculture systems for lobsters, abalone, scallops, and striped sea bass. The company they founded in 1972 eventually became the world’s largest producer of hybrid striped bass, producing 2 to 3 million pounds of fish and peak revenue of $10 million a year.
In recent years, as their fish aquaculture business came under increasing pressure from rising shipping costs and low-priced foreign competitors, Van Olst led the shift in focus to algae. What was Kent SeaTech became Kent BioEnergy, a reorganized company that plans to produce algae for energy, biomass, and water treatment applications. Their expertise with algae, though, has roots that began more than 15 years ago, when the company developed ways of using algae to clean the water in the fish pens at its 160-acre striped bass production facility.
“They started doing water remediation for their own business, and then they started doing water remediation for the (nearby) Salton Sea,” says Barry Toyonaga, Kent BioEnergy’s chief business officer. The enormous saline lake, which was created in a vast desert sink when the Colorado River breached a levee in 1905, is becoming increasingly contaminated by agricultural runoff 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.”