National Alliance Focuses on Turning Algal Biofuels Into Viable Industry

5/17/10Follow @bvbigelow

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efforts on advancing the science and technology in six specific areas to significantly increase algal biofuels production: Algal Biology; Cultivation; Algal Harvesting and Lipids Extraction; Converting Lipids to Fuel; Valuable Co-Products; and Sustainability Analysis. There are two major hurdles in particular, though, that pose the highest risks, and where Olivares said he wants to focus his resources:

—Increasing algae production and yield of lipids (natural fats, oils, and waxes) in sufficient quantities. The goal is to produce more than 20 gdw/m2 (grams dry weight per square meter) of algae daily, with 50 percent total lipids (by dry weight.)

—Developing technologies that efficiently harvest and “dewater” the algae, and ways to extract lipids from algal cells, with a goal of harvesting algae at a cost of 51 cents per standard barrel and extracting 15 gallons of lipids per minute.

The NAABB, which is led by the non-profit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center near St. Louis, Mo., includes 14 companies, 17 universities, and two national laboratories (Los Alamos and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory). Olivares told me the consortium is getting about $49 million from the U.S. Department of Energy over the next three years (including $44 million in federal stimulus funding announced in January), along with an estimated $20 million in “cost sharing” contributions from industry and academic institutions.

So what happens if a group working with the alliance makes an innovative breakthrough?

Olivares told me that has already been worked out: The innovators’ institution retains the intellectual property rights. A breakthrough must be disclosed to other NAABB members within 60 days and any NAABB member that needs the technology to do its own R&D must be allowed to use it under a non-exclusive license.

“Our consortium really is geared to take multiple technologies through similar research and development paths,” Olivares says. “For us, success is getting a company to a point where it is more commercially viable than it is today.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • anonymous

    This is absurd. The US has spent over $2.5 billion dollars on algae research and has not commercialized anything. US companies are building commercial-scale algae production plants today with all off-the-shelf existing technology.

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  • Jose Olivares

    In response to the anonymous comment: the total US investment (by both industry and the government) in developing the algae industry is nearly $2.5 B. This number represents both R&D and development of commercialization efforts. It may seem high, but remember the US alone consumes over 200 billion gallons per year of transportation fuels. It seems to me that replacing a significant portion of that industry with biofuels will require more than $2.5 B in investments from industry and/or the government.
    To the final point from the anonymous comment: the industry players going into the algae commercialization efforts recognize the need for new innovation in order to make the industry viable. For example, there is a $600 M investment by Exxon Mobil in a joint venture with Synthetic Genomics to develop algal organisms with high biomass and lipid (fuel) productivity. Other examples are Sapphire, Solix Biofuels, Chevron, HRBiopetroleum, etc. etc. etc.