19 March 2010

Solazyme Wins Gold Medal In Amsterdam

This weeks World Biofuels Market in Amsterdam has gotten a lot of people thinking about microbial biofuels -- including algal fuels. US company Solazyme won the gold prize for Sustainable Biofuels Technology at the WBF this year, so we will take a closer look at Solazyme.
Solazyme, a private company based in South San Francisco, stands out from the algae crowd, for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the sheer variety of its products. Solazyme makes fuel for the U.S. Navy. It makes a heart-healthy, vegetarian, protein-rich microalgae power that goes into Garden of Life supplements and vitamins sold at stores like Whole Foods. And it recently announced a deal with Unilever to use algal oil in renewable, sustainable personal care products like soap. Its algae are multi-talented.

Then, there’s the fact that Solazyme, unlike other startups, is “producing large volumes of oils and fuels, and we have been for a while,” says its CEO, Jonathan Wolfson. What’s large volumes? An annual rate of tens of thousands of gallons, including a little over 20,000 gallons of shipboard fuel during the first half of this year for the Navy, part of an $8.5 million contract signed last year...

... They got off on what they now say was the wrong track, growing algae in ponds, as most algal fuel companies do. A couple of years and a few million dollars later, they told their investors that it wasn’t working. Instead of growing algae in ponds using sunlight as an input, they decided to feed biomass such as sugar cane or switchgrass to their algae and grow them in tanks. This gives the company more control over the production process.

Wolfson says:

Pretty much everyone in the space disagrees, but the conclusion that we drew is is that…algae is by far the best thing on the planet at making oil but it’s far less economically efficient at capturing photons than higher plants.

We take algae, we put them in a tank, we feed them biomass, they make oil and we take the oil out. There’s a lot of technology in the process, but that’s basically what’s happening.

By genetically modifying the algae, Solazyme can produce a range of products, much as a standard oil refinery can make fuels and chemicals by refining crude oil. The company is exploring three distinct market segments: fuel oils, nutritionals (human and animal nutrition) and health sciences (cosmetics and nutraceuticals). “You have the whole world of chemistry at your fingertrips,” Wolfson says. _EnergyCollective

Solazyme is pursuing 1. algal fuels, 2. algal foods for humans -- including cooking oils -- and animal feeds, and 3. algal cosmetics and nutraceuticals.  Whether the Solazyme approach of growing algae in the dark by feeding it sugars is the most economical approach to algal fuels or not, Solazyme does appear to be learning a lot about different phases and types of algal production.

Petroleum, natural gas, and coal were all made by microbes over geological time scales.  But modern microbes are getting a boost from genetic engineering and advanced industrial engineering.  Right now, the race to microbial fuels is happening in laboratories and small pilot plants.  Within ten years, the race will move to larger scale pilot and production plants.  That is when things will get interesting on the commercial and financial scale.

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