Algae fuel breakthrough. Algal strains capable of doubling algae fuel for biofuel production.

By Katie Howell, E&E reporter

August 18, 2009
California, USA

A California biofuels startup announced the development today of algal strains capable of doubling algae fuel for biofuel production and carbon dioxide uptake compared with wild strains.

"The holy grail of algae has been to get the productivity up," said Bob Walsh, the CEO of the startup, Aurora Biofuels. "We've developed the tools to understand and optimize the genetics of microalgae and the various strains we're working with.... We've more than doubled the productivity of unoptimized algae."

The 3-year-old company said it has been testing the algal strains' algae fuel productivity in open, outdoor ponds for more than three months and is scaling up its operations with a goal of producing 100 gallons a day on a 50-acre site in Florida by next year. The company hopes to reach commercial-scale production by 2012.

The significance of operation is Aurora's success in keeping algae alive in open, outdoor ponds, the company says.

"It sounds easy, but... algae is at the bottom of the food chain," Walsh said in an interview. "Lots of things out there like algae."

Aurora maintains that outdoor ponds are vital to scaling up the industry of algae fuel. Other companies are experimenting with covered ponds or closed photobioreactors to protect the algae for algae fuel and boost algae fuel productivity, but those methods are costly to build and maintain, Walsh said.

Greg Mitchell, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, said it is crucial to the algae fuel industry to improve the algae fuel productivity of algal strains and prove their long-term sustainability outdoors. Mitchell is not associated with Aurora and said he is not familiar with the scientific details of its announcement.

"If they make this breakthrough, it would be transformative," Mitchell said. He added that he would like to see all algae fuel companies "lay their cards on the table and show their results."

The announcement comes on the heels of several major boosts for the algae fuel industry this summer, including the introduction of legislation for incentives and substantial investments by Exxon Mobil Corp. and Dow Chemical Co.

If cost hurdles and technological advancements occur, the algae fuel industry has promise, experts say. Algae -- using nonpotable water, sunlight and carbon dioxide -- produce lipids, or oil, which can be tweaked to molecularly match traditional hydrocarbons. The algae fuel can be used with traditional infrastructure.

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