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September 09, 2009

Tiny Algae Loom Large in Biofuel Pilot Projects


Photo of a woman examining a Petri dish on a translucent bench illuminated from underneath. A bank of lights behind the bench provide additional illumination.

A researcher examines algae cultures at the Natural Energy Laboratory Hawaii Authority as part of a project with Shell oil company. ExxonMobil is the latest oil company to become involved in biofuels from algae, although a number of startup companies are investigating the technology. Enlarge this photo.
Credit: Shell

The production of biofuels from algae gained new prominence this summer when ExxonMobil announced that it will invest up to $600 million in the technology. ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) formed a research and development alliance in July to explore the production of biofuels from photosynthetic algae. Photosynthetic algae—such as single-celled "microalgae" and blue-green algae—are organisms that use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into cellular oils and some long-chain hydrocarbons that can be processed into fuels and chemicals. SGI researchers plan to take a systematic approach to find, optimize, and engineer superior strains of algae, seeking to develop the systems for large-scale cultivation of algae and conversion of the organisms' products into biofuels. ExxonMobil expects to spend $300 million on the project internally, while potentially awarding more than $300 million to SGI. See the press releases from ExxonMobil and SGI.

Many small startup companies are exploring the production of biofuels from algae without the involvement of major oil companies like ExxonMobil. Two examples are Aurora Biofuels, Inc., which has been cultivating algae in Florida since August 2007, and LiveFuels, Inc., which started up a pilot plant in Brownsville, Texas, this August. Aurora Biofuels cultivates its algae in open ponds of seawater, harvests the algae "in an energy-efficient, cost-effective manner," and converts it into biodiesel. The company announced in March that it is successfully producing biodiesel to standards set by ASTM International, a world-recognized organization for standards development, achieving consistency in fuel quality during its trial. The company plans to begin commercial production in 2012. LiveFuels is also using open saltwater ponds at its Texas facility, using 45 acres of ponds to grow algae. But instead of mechanically processing the algae, LiveFuels is allowing filter-feeding fish and other aquatic herbivores to feed off the algae. The company then extracts the fish oil from the fish for conversion into biofuel and other products. LiveFuels plans to eventually develop commercial facilities along the coast of Louisiana, using agricultural pollution from the Mississippi River as nutrients for the algae. See the Aurora Biofuels press release and Web site and the LiveFuels press release (PDF 255 KB). Download Adobe Reader.

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