* Commercial biofuel from algae still 7 to 10 years off
* Companies look to gene-based methods for perfect strain
* Others focus on system design to grow algae
By Laura Isensee
SAN DIEGO, Oct 8 Filling your vehicle's tank
with fuel made from algae is still as much as a decade away, as
the emerging industry faces a series of hurdles to find an
economical way to make the biofuel commercially.
Estimates on a timeline for a commercial product, and
profits, vary from two to 10 years or more.
Executives and industry players who gathered at the Algae
Biomass Summit this week in San Diego said they need to push
for breakthroughs along the entire chain -- from identifying
the best organisms to developing efficient harvesting methods.
"This is not a slam dunk. There are a lot of technologies
that need to be developed," said Paul Roessler, vice president
of renewable fuels and chemicals at Synthetic Genomics.
So far on the list: finding the right strain of algae among
thousands of species that will produce high yields; designing
systems where the desired algae can multiply and other species
don't invade and disrupt the process; and extracting its oils
without degrading other parts of the algae that can be made
into side products and sold as well.
Oil giants Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N), Chevron Corp (CVX.N)
and BP Plc (BP.L), as well as investors and the U.S. military,
are sinking millions into the emerging industry.
Scientists and investors are lured by the pond scum's
natural oils that can be extracted and refined into fuel.
Algae grows fast and absorbs greenhouse gases along the
way. Plus, the lowly lifeform uses less land, water and other
resources than the corn or soybeans used in first generation
biofuels, alleviating concerns that those renewable fuels would
cause food shortages.
Privately held companies like Sapphire Energy and Synthetic
Genomics, which linked up with Exxon Mobil, are betting on
gene-based methods to develop a super bug.
"You can only go so far with classical methods of strain
development," Roessler said.
Synthetic Genomics is working on cells that will directly
secrete the oils and lipids that scientists want, eliminating
some of the costs to harvest the algae and extract its oils.
OPEN VS. CLOSED
Taking algae from carefully controlled laboratories and
growing it on commercial scale is another major hurdle, and has
divided the industry into two camps: open ponds versus enclosed
containers called bioreactors.
Martek Biosciences Corp MATK.O, which in August struck a
development deal with BP, is eyeing a third solution to
mass-produce algae's "green crude": fermenters that are 12 feet
(3.7 meters) in diameter and five stories tall.
Ponds and bioreactors are still immature technologies, said
Martek's Bill Barclay, who spent 11 years developing
nutritional supplements from algae.
"We need to have the learnings along the way. We need to
focus on more intermediate technology development," Barclay
said at the summit.
Valero Energy Corp-backed (VLO.N) Solix Biofuels is
striking a hybrid approach on the system front. The company
recently finished the first part of its plant in Colorado,
where it put flat panels in open basins to pump in carbon
dioxide from a nearby natural gas refinery. [ID:N07499114]
Even as Solix Biofuels focuses on infrastructure, the
company's technology officer Joel Butler said that the industry
needs help from all sides to cash in on algae's promise.
"It's going to take the right engineering solution with the
right species to make it commercially viable," Butler said.
Bill Glover, who chairs the industry group Algal Biomass
Organization and directs Boeing Co's (BA.N) environmental
strategy, said the industry needs to have more federal support
so that algae has the same incentives that other biofuel
feedstocks, like corn, enjoy.
"It's never going to get off the ground without a helping
hand," Glover said.
Glover said his best estimate for a commerical timeline is
seven to 10 years.
(Reporting by Laura Isensee, editing by Marguerita Choy)