Algae are everywhere — in the oceans, freshwater lakes, soil and even air. And if businesses working with algae have their way, these versatile, plant-like creatures will become a key part of almost every consumer product.
Companies and biotech researchers discussed that vision, and how to get there, at the 2014 Algae Biomass Summit, held last week in San Diego. The city, regarded as a global leader in algae biotechnology, hosted the conference for the first time since 2008.
In these boosters’ vision, algae belong at your dinner table, in the feed of livestock you eat, in the plastics you use and in the biofuels that go into your vehicle.
That vision has endured challenges since the conference was last here. Biofuels have taken a back seat to the stunning increase in American shale oil and gas production, and the Great Recession discouraged spending in such research.
But progress continues with biofuel studies. Algae biofuel backers such as Steve Mayfield, a scientist at UC San Diego, said as the cost of finding oil rises and the expense of making algae biofuels declines, producing biofuels will become more economically attractive.
For centuries, algae have been grown as a source of food.
Spirulina, sold as a nutritional supplement, was eaten by the Aztecs. Spirulina grows naturally in alkaline freshwater lakes, and today’s commercial growers mimic those conditions.
More recently, algae have been farmed as “functional foods” that confer health benefits such as providing omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition, algae are being developed for plastics and industrial chemicals. And companies in San Diego plan to use them as factories to produce medicines, including advanced cancer drugs. Triton Health & Nutrition, a UCSD spinoff, uses technology from Mayfield and colleagues to develop proteins to improve animal and human health.
Algae are grown in the Imperial County town of Calipatria by Earthrise Nutritionals, which said its outdoor “raceway” ponds form the world’s largest spirulina farm. They’re also cultivated in La Jolla at UC San Diego, where a university spinoff from Mayfield’s laboratory is growing them in large plastic bags to create drugs that fight infections.
Mayfield and colleagues also have explored the use of edible algae to produce vaccines.
Meanwhile, companies such as Sapphire Energy in La Jolla remain committed to development of biofuels from algae. The economic part of the equation still needs to be solved, but federal officials who spoke at last week’s summit said the government’s support of biofuels, including direct purchases, will help the industry expand.
Matt Carr, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization, which held the summit, borrowed from the technology industry to describe the profusion of algae products.
“There’s an algae for that,” Carr said at the event.
Down on the algae farm
Among the diverse collection of algae, the most recognizable is kelp, which has been harvested for centuries and burned to produce soda ash. San Diego’s Kelco produces food thickeners such as alginates from kelp.
Spirulina, a microbe often called blue-green algae, is closer to what most people regard as algae. It’s scientifically described as a member of cyanobacteria, a grouping of bacteria that — like plants — get their energy through photosynthesis. Other species of cyanobacteria produce toxic ocean blooms and fix nitrogen in soil, enhancing its fertility.
Earthrise’s 108-acre property in Calipatria offers three highly desirable elements for spirulina farming: easy access to water (from the Colorado River), inexpensive land and plenty of sunshine.
To promote growth, paddle wheels in Earthrise’s raceway ponds circulate and aerate the water, which is recycled through each crop. Because photosynthetic algae need carbon to grow, the company pumps carbon dioxide into the water. The algae is harvested by running the water through three sets of filters, which yield a moist paste of algae. Earthrise then sends the paste into a heat-drying chamber that evaporates the remaining water, producing a dry powder that is quickly packaged.
To guard against contamination and ensure proper quality, on-site laboratories constantly monitor the water and spirulina.
Raceway farming is most suited to low-cost production of commodity products. Sapphire Energy’s algae biofuels are definitely commodity products, but they’re also the result of advanced bioengineering, which selects for high-quality strains to get “green crude.”
Sapphire operates two facilities in New Mexico — a test site in Las Cruces and a raceway farm in Columbus — with assistance from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy.
Some of the bioengineering efforts consist of discovering promising algae strains and devising the best conditions in which to grow them. Genetic modification of algae is also being experimented in outdoor ponds — a controversial practice. Critics said the GMO organisms will inevitably escape, with potentially harmful effects on ecosystems.
To address that concern, Sapphire and UC San Diego last year tested how GMO algae might affect algae in natural bodies of water, with permission from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The researchers looked at algae growing in five lakes in San Diego County: Lindo, Miramar, Murray, Poway and Santee. They took water from the lakes to the university’s Biology Field Station and placed it in open ponds. Other open ponds contained water with the algae Scenedesmus dimorphus, used in biofuels research. One form of the algae was genetically modified, while a control algae was not.
Both the unaltered and GMO versions of Scenedesmus colonized the ponds with the native lake algae, but there was no detectable effect on the diversity of the native algae, UC San Diego researcher Jonathan Shurin said at the summit.
Only one species of genetically modified algae was tested, so Shurin said further research is needed before wider conclusions can be drawn.
Meanwhile, Sapphire will expand the products it offers beyond biofuels, CEO James Levine said at the conference. The company decided during the past few months that getting the maximum use out of its biomass technology is good business.
“You have to look at the products you can make and the customers you can serve,” Levine said. “Green Crude is absolutely an important part of Sapphire’s future, but there will be other parts that will be equally important. … We look forward to providing more information on that over time.”
On reason he cited: Finding and developing oil fields is enormously expensive. The International Energy Agency estimates that $1 trillion must be invested every year to keep global oil production steady. That figure was cited in a recent Reuters report on the challenges of keeping the oil flowing. A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said the estimate appears to be in the ballpark, although his group could not independently verify it.
On the other hand, Mayfield said the cost of algae-farmed biofuels will drop as the algae are domesticated with modern agricultural methods and the overall production process is engineered more efficiently.
“A reasonable extrapolation would be that a 50 percent yield increase can be achieved in the next five years, and a doubling of yield in the next 10,” Mayfield wrote in the March issue of the Applied Phycology newsletter.
His prediction: “Algae oil achieves economic parity with fossil crude oil at $140 a barrel in 2019 and beats it by $50 a barrel by 2024, when algae oil is at full commercial production scale.”
Photo caption: Research Associate Levi Williams samples algae from controlled growth reactors at Sapphire Energy in La Jolla. — Hayne Palmour IV