February 24, 2008
Solazyme Algae Biodiesel

Solazyme is pursuing an unusual process for using algae to produce liquid fuels including biodiesel. In the Solazyme approach they keep the algae in the dark and feed it sugar.

The new process combines genetically modified strains of algae with an uncommon approach to growing algae to reduce the cost of making fuel. Rather than growing algae in ponds or enclosed in plastic tubes that are exposed to the sun, as other companies are trying to do, Solazyme grows the organisms in the dark, inside huge stainless-steel containers. The company's researchers feed algae sugar, which the organisms then convert into various types of oil. The oil can be extracted and further processed to make a range of fuels, including diesel and jet fuel, as well as other products.

The company uses different strains of algae to produce different types of oil. Some algae produce triglycerides such as those produced by soybeans and other oil-rich crops. Others produce a mix of hydrocarbons similar to light crude petroleum.

I am very interested in algae biodiesel because I think it might turn out as the best approach for doing biomass energy. But most other research groups pursuing algae biodiesel are using photosynthesis where the algae get their energy from being exposed to sunlight. Can the Solazyme approach work better?

Solazyme's approach is supposed to let them use cellulose. So trees, switchgrass and other non-grain crops which can produce more biomass per acre can serve as food sources for the algae. Solazyme avoids the need to build ponds with glass or plastic coverings on a massive scale.

Estimates for how much biodiesel can be produced using the pond approach run into the thousands of gallons per acre per year (one figure: 4000 gallons). One big problem with these approaches is the cost of physical plant structure over many acres. If instead an acre is used to grow switchgrass or trees how many gallons of biodiesel can the Solazyme approach produce?

If anyone can point to some good sources of information on the viability of algae biodiesel please post in the comments.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 24 11:13 PM  Energy Biomass


Comments
BBM said at February 25, 2008 12:45 PM:

I guess the real question is if the algae can be made to feed on cellulose itself, rather than sugars from cellulosic sources.

O/W, it probably will cost more and be more water intensive and less efficient than gasification.

David Govett said at February 25, 2008 2:14 PM:

This also would avoid driving up food prices.

Charlie K said at February 25, 2008 2:26 PM:

One thing that confuses me about the proposed biofuel solution: If we're still going to burn hydrocarbons, how do we deal with the resulting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Or are biofuels just a palliative until a solar-based economy becomes economically feasible?

Bob Badour said at February 25, 2008 2:56 PM:

David,

It will still drive up food prices. Even if they get sawgrass to work, it will compete with other crops for land.

Charlie,

The resulting carbon dioxide will get turned back into cellulose during the next growing season. The carbon in plants doesn't usually come from the soil. It starts out as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Brock said at February 26, 2008 3:09 AM:

"If instead an acre is used to grow switchgrass or trees how many gallons of biodiesel can the Solazyme approach produce?"

Probably not competitive with a pond/solar bioreactor approach, but that's probably OK. Switchgrass and woodchips don't need a big capital investment to get growing; nature is really good at doing that for "free" once you've got some land. I expect that this process is also less energy efficient from a "whole cycle" point of view than a pond/solar bioreactor approach, but again it doesn't matter since the sun's energy is free too; you can waste it to preserve resources elsewhere. I think there's a strong argument that one 10 acre processing plant (using this approach) surrounded by 10,000 acres of switchgrass is more cost effective than 1000 acres of pond reactors. We aren't so short on land yet that it matters.



"It will still drive up food prices. Even if they get sawgrass to work, it will compete with other crops for land."

Maybe, but not necessarily. Arable land suitable for growing wheat, rice, etc. is only a small percentage of total land mass (outside of Kansas and Indiana). Many cellulosic sources can be grown on land that would never be used to grow food crops.



"If anyone can point to some good sources of information on the viability of algae biodiesel please post in the comments."

http://www.oilgae.com/ seems like a good place to start.
Here's a list of companies looking at this space: http://www.oilgae.com/algae/oil/biod/cos/cos.html

Brett Bellmore said at February 26, 2008 4:41 AM:

I think they'd have a real product there if they engineered the algae to produce desirable omega 3 fatty acids for animal feeds. A varient on silage. That would make it economic with a price per gallon considerably higher than would be economic for fuel.

Engineer-Poet said at February 26, 2008 7:33 AM:

This is a strange approach.  The major point of algal fuels is that algae have far greater productivity than higher plants.  Now comes Solzyme, throwing that advantage away.  Is it superior to turn e.g. sugar cane into biodiesel rather than ethanol?  I don't know, and nothing in the press I've seen about Solzyme even mentions the subject.

Bob Badour said at February 26, 2008 7:46 AM:

Brock,

Competition for the inputs for agriculture will drive up the costs. It's not a maybe. It's a for sure thing. We grow food where we grow it now because we get more of whatever we plant there than if we plant elsewhere. That will be as true for cellulose as it is for any other crop.

We won't be measuring the land for biofuels in 1000's or tens of 1000's of acres. We will be measuring it in hundreds of 1000's or millions of square kilometers.

Engin Summer said at February 26, 2008 9:17 AM:

Algae can learn to metabolize other carbohydrates, or can be grown in bioreactors with symbiotic organisms that break down the cellulose, hemicellulose, lignins, for them.

Still, if you've got the sunlight why not use it? I can see this approach being useful if the sun shuts down, like in the mini-ice age they say is coming. If the sun shuts down, only nuclear and geothermal are reliable.

BBM said at February 26, 2008 3:13 PM:

Is it superior to turn e.g. sugar cane into biodiesel rather than ethanol?

I wondered about that as well. Intuitively, it should, and it should be "sustainable". However, I believe they use the sugarcane bargasse/leftovers (sp?) leftovers to provide the heat for distillation of ethanol. This is probably one of the things that makes sugarcane ethanol EROEI favorable. However, the algae-biodiesel wouldn't need distilling... so the EROEI would probably at least be similar to sugarcane ethanol.

Maybe the bargasse could be pryolyzed and the carbon plowed in instead of using the bargasse for the distillation process.

Then the process could be carbon negative and have a decent EROEI.

Probably not sufficiently scalable, though (unless we all are driving PHEVs).

Randall Parker said at February 26, 2008 6:20 PM:

E-P,

I do not get all the press about Solazyme either. On the one hand they avoid the capital costs of covering an acre with pond bottom and glass or plastic covering. On the other hand, their algae do not even accept cellulose as input. It takes sugar. Where, outside of perhaps Brazil, will it make economic sense to buy sugar for this purpose?

Brock,

Noone has yet found a cheap way to break down cellulose for sugar to ethanol. The same will hold true for cellulose to sugar for algae feed for biodiesel.

To make Solazyme's approach work they are going to need to genetically engineer their algae (or some helper organisms( to eat cellulose.

Bob Badour said at February 26, 2008 8:11 PM:

I get the press.

If one puts out press releases with the right key phrases, one can get on the taxpayer funded gravy train. Who cares if it makes no sense whatsoever? How else is one supposed to make money off a useless product?

It's not like corn ethanol makes any sense either.

Fran Barlow said at March 16, 2008 7:54 PM:

As someone who is a supporter of algae-based biofuels, ths approach seems one or two steps the wrong side of stupid. Given that algae will feed on ag run off or other wastes, and enzymes have been developed that can break down cellulose highly effectively, I don't see the advantage.

Studies have shown that open raceway ponds fed by nutrient contaminated water (even brackish water) can produce exceelent yields. One paper on the 'controlled eutrophication of micro algae' modelled the program in a hypothetical scenario at the Salton Sea. The numbers at the time came out at about $US1 per US gallon -- and that was just for the biodiesel.

Algae also yield up starches for alcohol based fuels, the glycerin from transesterifaction can be used in pharmaceuticals, burned as a heating oil, used to run a generator, or added top other waste biomass, converted to syngas and Fischer Tropfed to hydrocarbon fuel. Even the residual salts left from transesterification are a feriliser. Once you spread the income from these merchantables across the whole recurrent cost the price for each of the fuel products is lower still.

Why would you want to increase the money and energy cost of your feedstock and the cost of your capital equipment unless you got truly massive yield advantages?

Fran

Michel said at October 14, 2008 1:24 AM:

I think algae biofuel will be great for the environment and the reduction of our dependence upon petroleum oil.

Gene Lucas said at January 16, 2009 9:16 AM:

I think this approach may have merits. It depends on yield and ease of manufacture. It also depends on whether the Solazyme process puts out a lot of carbon dioxide like fermentation and anaerobic digestion do. The yield from glucose-based feedstocks will dwarf those possible with photosynthesis. Adding glucose to photosynthesized products get yield increases of 61-84%. I'm a little scared of their broad-based press releases though. I hope it's not just all hype, we need a viable biofuel product system.

Aureon Kwolek said at February 25, 2009 7:03 AM:

The Advantages of Heterotrophic Algae

Solazyme uses a different method to produce algae. Most companies developing algae use photo-autotrophic algae grown in the light. Solazyme grows heterotrophic algae in the dark.

Heterotrophic algae does not require sunlight, but the tradeoff is you have to feed it some kind of sugar. Initially, that sounds inefficient. Why expend the cost of sugar, when you can grow algae in sunlight for free. Look a little deeper, because there are big advantages of growing heterotrophic algae in the dark: (1) By growing algae in the dark, the process is simplified. Otherwise, you have to have a mechanism to get the algae exposed to the light, or get the light to the algae. That takes up solar surface area, which translates into large land masses. (2) Algae grown in the dark in insulated tanks can be grown anywhere, with a minimum footprint. (3) Hyper fast growth rate: It takes time for algae grown in the light to absorb and process sunlight, whereas sugars are absorbed in a fraction of the time. Reproduction in insulated tanks is faster and not subject to fluctuating sunlight or temperature extremes. (4) Sugar-fed heterotrophic algae multiplies rapidly and becomes many times more concentrated than algae grown in the light. Concentrated algae is also more efficient to extract from the liquid growth medium.

Beside Solazyme, this method is also being developed by East Kentucky University and General Atomics, working together. They are leveraging local biomass sugars by feeding it to heterotrophic algae grown in vats. Researchers claim that algae grown in the dark can reach densities that are 1,000 times higher than strains of photo-autotrophic algae that must be grown in the light. This is one of the main advantages. Grow one concentrated tank of heterotrophic algae, or grow a thousand tanks of photo-autotrophic algae in the light. Itís the same amount of algae. Only one is far more concentrated into a much smaller footprint.

Heterotrophic algae can be grown in the dark in tanks, using very little land. Tanks can be stacked a hundred feet underground, or stack them a hundred feet high above ground. Stack them in a high rise. Grow it in gray water in your basement, on your roof, under your backyard, or under a parking lot, using no additional land. Grow it on a barge.

Take local sugars derived from corn or sweet sorghum or food waste or cattails or potatoes or sugar beets or Jerusalem artichokes or cassava or sugar cane. Or convert cellulose into sugars from biomass or paper waste or agricultural waste or sewage or what have you. And leverage these sugars to multiply the algae many times. That is going to be your massive source of feedstock for ethanol, biodiesel, feed, fertilizer, nutritional supplements, and other value added products.

Heterotrophic algae facilities should be installed where you have readily available waste heat, CO2 waste, nutrient rich waste water effluent, and local sugars. Existing corn ethanol refineries are a perfect match for growing heterotrophic algae. All the raw materials are already there. The infrastructure is already there. Why take corn sugar and feed it to algae? Because you multiply the feedstock many times in a short period of time, ONSITE on a small footprint, for pennies on the dollar.

Heterotrophic algae can reproduce every 8 hours. Itís conceivable that you could combine 3 tablespoons full of live algae with a pound of corn sugar, and bubble CO2 waste through a medium of nutrient rich waste water effluent, warmed by waste heat, and get a return of 20 pounds of algae or more within 72 hours. So you multiply the feedstock many times, using waste products and less than 10 cents worth of corn sugar. The sugar is a minor expense, because a much larger portion of the input is derived from the waste products. If you use corn, you only use the starch for the sugar. You still have the corn protein and the corn oil, as byproducts that can be made into other value added products.

Take all the corn sugar that is now going straight to 10 billion gallons of ethanol, and instead, feed it to heterotrophic algae in tanks. At only 20X, that would yield upwards of 200 billion gallons of ethanol per year (or more) in the U. S. alone.

Out of tens of thousands of strains of algae, thirty two types of heterotrophic algae have been identified thus far. Some are high in starch. Some are high in oil. Some are high in proteins. Depending on what you want to produce, you would select your strain accordingly. And after your primary product has been taken from the feedstock, you would also make value added products from the remaining byproducts. Grow a high starch variety of algae ideal for ethanol production. Grow a variety of algae ideal for oil production, or high protein feed production, or fertilizer production. Ethanol and biodiesel production will become integrated, because they will be co-products of the same feedstock, algae. Since corn ethanol plants already produce distillers grains and supply the livestock industry, theyíll have a second high protein feed product to market alongside. Fertilizer will be locally or regionally produced from algae.

We now have a 172 corn ethanol refineries and the infrastructure in place. This is a viable framework for a much bigger and more efficient ethanol and biodiesel industry, feed industry, and fertilizer industry yet to come, based on heterotrophic algae.

Paul Farnham said at May 20, 2009 5:25 AM:

I don't quite get it, I understand the increase in yield by using heterotrophic algae, and obviously not using sunlight but surely if the algae is not photosynthesising then there will be no overall consumption of CO2, infact the process will generate CO2, and therefore increase greenhouse gasses.

Producing fuel in this way will produce CO2....what do we then do with that. What is the point of biofuels if they become another overall way of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere?

davea0511d said at November 7, 2009 10:31 PM:

Paul -

You've moved on I'm sure ... anyway you're right that heterotrophic algae does not consume CO2 but it does feed on sugars that come from plants that consume CO2. The net effect is zero.

Carlos Soza Barrundia said at May 2, 2010 7:09 AM:

Processing Heterotrophic algae in the Dark is the process that Martek Biosciences (purchased Omega Tech in 2002 is using long time ago to produce DHA Oil
I myself worked at their facility at Winchester KY, later on at their new facility at Kingstree SC
Autotrophic strains do not light, and need to be fed with sugars, is true, but the type of oil DHA is highly value; hundred times the value of oil for Biodiesel
Autotrophic strains do need light, fed with CO2, and release Oxygen.
Autotrophic strains will release CO2, this CO2, can be used to feed the Autotrophic strains and proudce cheaper oil for Biodiesel, cleaning air at the same time; closing the loop
Do you see the picture there?

Carlos Soza Barrundia said at May 2, 2010 7:15 AM:

Comment correction: typo mistake (heterotrophic vs autotrophic)
This one is correct:

Processing Heterotrophic algae in the Dark is the process that Martek Biosciences (purchased Omega Tech in 2002 is using long time ago to produce DHA Oil
I myself worked at their facility at Winchester KY, later on at their new facility at Kingstree SC
Heterotrophic strains do not light, and need to be fed with sugars, is true, but the type of oil DHA is highly value; hundred times the value of oil for Biodiesel
Autotrophic strains do need light, fed with CO2, and release Oxygen.
Heterotrophic strains will release CO2, this CO2, can be used to feed the Autotrophic strains and proudce cheaper oil for Biodiesel, cleaning air at the same time; closing the loop
Combining both type of strains is perfect
Do you see the picture there?

Post a comment
Comments:
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
URL:
Remember info?

                       
Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©