Algae—Food or Chemical Grade?
This column expands on Riggs Eckelberry’s presentation to the European Algae Biomass Conference in London, 27-28 April 2011.
here’s a big question planners should be asking themselves when they put together an algae production plan: are we trying to meet food-grade requirements for our algae? That critical question drives the overall shape of the operation and its business plan.
Making Nutritional Algae
Food-grade algae can be readily used for pharmaceuticals, nutritional products, food for people and animals, and fertilizer. It is already being produced in large quantities. For example, Martek’s algae DHA is already found in 99% of all baby food in the USA. And Solazyme’s algae, which is being made in volume for fuel customers like the Department of Defense, can be made just as easily into food as fuel.
It’s no accident that these large-scale players use the highly reliable “dark cycle” process: feeding their algae sugar or starch in sealed tanks, in what is known as heterotrophic growth. Meanwhile other companies, like Aurora Algae, are beginning to make food-grade algae in the sun: autotrophic growth. The environment is less controllable out there in the open, but there’s no question you can still achieve food-grade algae.
Like many other companies in algae today, Aurora concluded that the best markets for its algae were the high-value nutritional markets. And that’s true, for now. Eventually, we’ll have too many producers for what are still relatively small markets, but that’s hardly a problem today.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
The problem comes when you start trying to feed algae with waste products. Why? Because it makes economic sense—or because a polluter is going to fund your development. As we at OriginOil
pointed out in our Algae Productivity Model
, there’s lots of synergy between waste products and algae:
- Algae need nitrate and phosphate to grow, and there’s plenty of that in sewage systems and agricultural runoff.
- Algae need lots of CO2, and there are plenty of industrial CO2 emitters who are eager to reduce their emissions.
- And in places where fresh water is valuable, you’ll want to use brackish or salty water instead.
It’s a great model: get paid to get rid of waste products that help your algae grow in a big way. Now… can you still get food-grade algae with these kinds of inputs? It’s not easy.
You can find plenty of clean CO2 in the world, but vast amounts of it comes out of smokestacks. That’s a source of both synergy and headaches.
At the recent European Algae Biomass Conference in London, I was talking to someone who is using CO2 from a power plant. That grower described how occasionally a “burp” of sulfur dioxide would make it past the scrubbing systems. That’s no longer a very clean algae crop.
Now maybe they can get away with heavy metals in fish oil (and it’s there), but I think that with algae, the public is going to be less tolerant of toxin levels. If it’s nutritional-grade, it’s got to be free of toxins—zero-tolerance.
And just try to get your nitrates from a sewage system. Your algae won’t be food grade, or at least you’ll never convince the public that it is, which amounts to the same thing. So if you want to be paid for using up waste products, you’re pretty much out of the nutritionals game.
Does that mean we’re stuck with fuel?
Competing with Petroleum
Energy is the monster market. And the price of petroleum rises steadily all the time, despite the occasional pull-back when the Middle East seems to be momentarily a safer place. But in the petroleum industry, the money is in the chemicals: 90% of crude oil goes into fuel, but 40% of the profits come from petrochemicals.
Remember how in the late nineties, Amazon.com came along and took the easy, most profitable sales from the bookstores? It took another decade to really kill them. In the same way, renewables are going to start with the most valuable petroleum fractions, hollowing out energy company profits.
Bio-plastics: it’s the future, son.
The point is, we don’t have to be challenged to make algae for less than the well-subsidized price of gasoline or diesel: we can skim the cream with the valuable chemical fractions.
Making Fuel and Petrochemicals
Now if we’re making petroleum fractions, we can generally use waste products. As we documented in our 2009 Algae Productivity Model
, that makes a big difference to the bottom line. Here are just two of the ways to go about making algae for fuel and petrochemicals:
- Full extraction and fractionation. That’s where you separate the lipids and the biomass, and then get further fractions from there. This typically yields the highest-quality products, because the organic structures are largely unharmed.
- Minimal extraction, leading to an industrial process to make “biocrude”. (There’s no room here to discuss more specific topics like bio-oil.) When I say biocrude, I mean something that can eventually be refined for one, some or all of the petroleum fractions.
There are benefits to each path, but if I were designing a VERY large-scale algae production operation fed by industrial waste, I might go for the second method because of its simplicity and scalability. You can make a very high-throughput biocrude operation. If we’re going to compete with petroleum even with the high-grade chemical fractions, we are going to need lots of scale: refineries need tens of thousands of barrels per day to keep operating.
The CO2 Factor
In last month’s column, I mentioned that CO2 is the “Killer App”.
This fact was underlined in my recent trip to Washington for the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, where I asked the Austrade delegation if the recent change of government from Liberal to Conservative would mean that their strong carbon policies would be weakened. The Austrade speaker answered unhesitatingly that Australia has already spent AU$2 Billion on geo-sequestration solutions, and is ready to spend more on bio-capture, a bargain by comparison. More importantly, CO2 abatement is an export technology for Australia!
My point is that much large-scale algae development is being driven by carbon regulation. This in turn drives the agenda away from nutritionals to petrochemicals. Over time we will see continued development of these two sides: food- and chemical-grade algae. There’s a strong future in both, but algae planners should be well aware which they are pursuing.