Bioscience

Algae’s bright future

June 12, 2008

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: The Arizona Republic , Ryan Randazzo] – Many farmers keep a scarecrow handy, but Michael Bellefeuille has more to worry about than crows feeding on his unique crop.

The Casa Grande researcher and farmer begins his days scanning algae samples under a microscope to ensure his slimy harvest is safe from euglenoids, the microscopic invertebrates that kick around with a whiplike flagellum to eat whatever is in sight.

With record fuel prices, everyone from Chevron to British energy company BP is studying how to make fuel from quick-growing algae. Bellefeuille works for Phoenix-based XL Renewables Inc, which is taking a slightly different strategy by growing algae that can be sold to make animal feed, biodiesel and food oils, rather than strictly focus on biofuel.

“Our focus is to just economically produce this as a crop,” President Ben Cloud said. “We see this as an emerging crop to compete with soybeans and corn.”

XL Renewables has a small test facility in Casa Grande at Withrow Dairy, and officials plan to open 40 acres of 18-inch-deep algae troughs this fall to demonstrate their farming technology.

Wastewater from the dairy cattle will be used to grow the algae, which can then be used as a food supplement for the cattle, Cloud said. Algae also can be used to feed pigs, poultry and fish, he said.

About 77 percent of the algae’s mass can be used in animal feeds. An additional 13 percent is oil that can be converted to biodiesel, and the remaining 10 percent can be sold as fatty acids used in human and animal food supplements.

Cloud estimates it will cost $300 per ton of algae for water, nutrients and labor, but if he can find markets for all the products, he could earn as much as $600 to $800 per ton.

He also figures he has to produce 10 tons of algae per acre per year to profit.

Biodiesel plant on hold
XL Renewables formed in 2006 to develop an algae-growing facility and biodiesel refinery in Vicksburg, about 100 miles west of Phoenix off Interstate 10.

But the company has been unable to get financing for that refinery and, instead, is focusing on growing algae and selling it to others who would make the final products, Cloud said, adding that he still plans to develop 2,400 acres of algae troughs at the Vicksburg location after opening the test facility in Casa Grande.

Growing algae in exposed ponds that allow evaporation would seem a water-intensive crop for the desert, but Cloud and Bellefeuille hope to use partially treated wastewater or other non-drinkable water, and said that, even with evaporation, they expect algae to use less water per acre than cotton or alfalfa.

“We can locate it with marginal farmland with very poor water quality,” Cloud said. “That’s where algae fits. It’s not something you put on prime farmland.”

That’s part of his sales pitch because he not only wants to be in the growing business, he wants to sell the trough technology to other farmers to start their own algae crops.

An energy expert from Arizona State University familiar with XL Renewables’ work said the concept shows potential because it looks at other uses for algae.

“Many of the models (for growing algae) use a very select strain of algae that is high in oil, and they are careful not to get contamination (with other algae strains),” said Mark Edwards, a professor of marketing and sustainability. “XL’s model is very promising.”

Edwards recently wrote a book titled Green Algae Strategy, in which he proposes algae as a solution for world food and fuel shortages.

“Arizona will probably be Algae Central,” he said. “We have sunshine, temperate weather, not a whole lot of freezes, brine water underground that can’t be used for crops, lots of cheap desert land. We have exactly what the industry needs.”

Laser-leveled troughs
Much of the research on algae fuel has focused on how to keep it growing at the highest rate. XL officials think they have found a solution.

XL’s troughs are laser-leveled and aerated to stimulate growth. The algae can be filtered from the water as it flows through the troughs.

“When you are continually harvesting it, you really are giving it room to grow,” said Bellefeuille, who studied algae and biofuel at ASU before landing a job at XL after graduating.

XL officials recognize the traits in algae that have attracted ASU researchers and several major companies around the globe to the possibility of growing it for biofuel.
“It’s highly adaptable,” Bellefeuille said. “The next generation learns from the one before it. And every six to 12 hours it replicates.”

That trait makes it possible to take a strain of alga that doesn’t grow well at 100 degrees and raise it so that it thrives at that temperature, he said. It also could allow XL to grow different strains in different seasons.

Growing algae like a traditional crop has brought about some strange ideas.
Among the more bizarre plans at XL Renewables is lighting that keeps algae thriving after sundown. The company plans to test lights on the 40 acres of troughs being developed in Casa Grande.

Because the technology is proprietary, Cloud did not want to disclose the light source but said that it is not energy-intensive such as the lights greenhouses sometimes use. He also said it does not cut into the revenue estimates for algae troughs.
“It glows,” Cloud said. “People will see fields glowing at night.”

Algae interest

Nationally, well-known energy companies are researching algae, including:

Chevron Corp., which announced in January it was partnering with San Francisco Bay Area company Solazyme to make biodiesel from algae. Chevron already had announced it was working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on algae biofuel.

Royal Dutch Shell, which announced in November it would build a test facility in Hawaii with HR Biopetroleum Inc., focused on using seawater to grow algae.

Local endeavors

Arizona also is seeing lots of algae research, including:

Arizona State University researchers are growing bacteria to make diesel-engine fuel. The project is a partnership with the energy company BP and Science Foundation Arizona. Researchers are building “photobioreactors” to grow the bacteria, hoping to prove that the bacteria can be raised on a commercial scale.

Arizona Public Service Co. has had some success working with GreenFuel Technologies Corp. of Massachusetts, “feeding” the carbon dioxide from a natural-gas power plant to algae for biodiesel.

Scottsdale-based PetroSun Inc., a gas- and oil-drilling company, announced in February that it formed a joint venture with Gilbert-based Optimum Biofuels to build an algae biorefinery near Coolidge. PetroSun also has announced plans to open similar plants in Louisiana, Texas and Central America.

Amereco Biofuels Corp., which has a small project in the far West Valley using recycled restaurant cooking oil, is researching various strains of algae for biodiesel.