Algae Biomass Advocates Push Past Exuberance, Aim for Sustainability
Ice shut down Houston for the second time in five days recently, a weather event that, in its sheer strangeness, seemed a fitting backdrop for a gathering of alternative fuel advocates in Big Oil’s backyard.
I drove on an unusually empty Interstate 45 to Montgomery, TX, about 60 miles north of Houston, where the leaders of the Algae Biomass Organization—a consortium of scientists, entrepreneurs, oil companies, and logistics firms—have met yearly since the group’s founding in 2008.
Though the organization is based in Preston, MN, the board has gathered for its annual retreat in Texas for the past three years. Their host is one of the group’s founding members, Greg Mitchell, an algae research biologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Mitchell, a leading expert in the field, also happens to be a son of the late Texas oilman George Mitchell, known for driving the use of hydraulic fracking to aid the recovery of underground oil and gas deposits.
The younger Mitchell holds the meeting at a conservancy owned by his family’s foundation, located a short drive from The Woodlands, the master-planned community George Mitchell built in the 1970s.
Greg Mitchell invited me to join the group for part of the day to meet fellow board members and learn about the still-young organization’s efforts to boost the many cleantech uses of algae—as alternative fuel, food additive, or raw material for greener cosmetics. As the board finished up its meeting and eased into cocktail hour, I spoke to a few members, a mix of scientists, entrepreneurs, and executives, to get a sense of both the state of the algae industry and what the Algae Biomass Organization’s plans are to grow the field. First up was Tim Burns, an ABO member who is also CEO and co-founder of BioProcess Algae in Portsmouth, RI.
“Because [algae] can fit into so many markets, it’s a challenge for the industry,” Burns said. BioProcess Algae uses biofilms to more efficiently cultivate algae to replace the animal feed currently used for poultry, swine, cattle, or fish. Last year, it received a $6.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop algae-based fuels for military jets and ships.
But algae’s flexibility is also its greatest strength, he added. “Algae is not wasting any parts,” said Burns, who previously founded two water treatment companies and served as the board president for Save the Bay in Rhode Island.
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