This Week's Herman Trend Alert

Leadership in Normal 2.0

  The Herman Trend Alert

September 2, 2009

Energy from Algae

When we wrote about biofuels in the past (>see HTA from 6/13/07), we included the importance of using non-food-grade feed stocks. Versatile algae can be fed sewage and carbon dioxide and grown in many places, including deserts, ponds, and oceans. Within the next year or two we expect the number of companies involved in producing biofuels from algae, already over 50, to double.

For years, ExxonMobil was publically skeptical about biofuels; last month, the company invested about $600 million into a collaborative research and development program with Synthetic Genomics. According to a research associate with Lux Research, private investment in algae fuel ventures has at least doubled every year since 2006. This trend is likely to continue.

Among other approaches, Synthetic Genomics is considering the use of adjusted metabolic pathways in algae to boost the plant's oil production. (Metabolic pathways are processes involving genes and proteins that facilitate the transformation of algae to biofuels.)

Only after years of careful research did ExxonMobil conclude that algae have the most potential in terms of their ability to scale up production. Second, algae biofuel production can fit into the vast infrastructure of existing refineries and filling stations. Finally, algae can produce far more fuel per acre than palm, sugar cane, or corn. Recently, other large oil companies, including Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell have recently invested into algae ventures as well.

Naturally, the airline industry, plagued by high jet-fuel prices, is also investing and testing, with participants including Boeing, GE Aviation, Virgin Atlantic, Japan Airlines, and Continental Airlines, among others.

Economic competitiveness remains the key challenge; the search is on to find the best strains of algae for producing oil. Another startup Solazyme, located near San Francisco, whose investors include Chevron, is growing algae in large dark tanks and fed by sugar. Another company in Israel called Seambiotic is growing marine microalgae using the carbon dioxide from a coal-burning power plant's smokestack to feed its algae. There is even a company in China developing algae as effective biofuel.

The use of algae as biofuel has tremendous potential. Expect more large companies to jump on this bandwagon.

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