14 PM NETWORK SEP TEMBER 2013 WWW.PMI.ORG
OASIS OR MIRAGE?
When oil prices skyrocketed to a record-breaking
US$100 per barrel in 2008, researchers and government agencies responded with a new breed of
algae biofuel projects. Fast forward to 2013, and
many of these pilot projects, which showed promise on a small scale, are struggling to scale up to
levels required for industrial production.
Take, for example, the partnership between
Exxon Mobil and biotech company Synthetic
Genomics Inc. In 2009, the two companies began
collaborating on an R&D project aimed at producing algae biofuels on a commercial scale. Exxon
planned to invest US$600 million in the project
over roughly six years, with billions more to follow
if the technology proved to be scalable.
Part of the project’s cost-containment strategy
involved using existing refineries to extract a fuel
that would be compatible with the current transportation infrastructure, in particular Exxon Mobil’s
But in May 2013, Exxon announced it was refocusing the project on genetic modification, because
seems to exist
at the basic
it’s even more
Exxon Mobile chairman and
CEO, to Bloomberg
existing algae strains did not produce enough oil
to reach scalability targets. Exxon Mobile chair-
man and CEO Rex Tillerson told Bloomberg the
venture was at least 25 years away from creating
an algae-based motor fuel.
“The hurdle seems to exist at the basic science
level, which means it’s even more difficult to
solve,” he said.
For All-gas, one of three algae biofuel demonstration projects funded in part by a grant from
the European Commission, selecting the right
varieties of algae for cultivation was a critical
“We needed to prove that the technology
could work first,” says Frank Rogalla, All-gas
project coordinator and director of technology
and innovation at Aqualia. The water management company, based in Madrid, Spain, is
leading the consortium of organizations working on the project.
Like all plants, algae require sun, water, nutrients and carbon dioxide (CO2) to grow. But turning algae blooms into a fuel that creates more energy than the process to make it consumes is a challenge for project teams. Here is a brief outline of how algae go from the pond to the pump.
From Pond Scum To Green Gold
1 cultivation: Agitation, fertilization and sealing
methods can help ensure
the blooms get enough
sunlight, nutrients and CO2
to produce a high yield.
2 Harvesting and dewatering: Removing algae from the water in which it grows requires using
a centrifuge or adding a chemical
that causes the individual algae cells
to coagulate into a large mass that
can’t pass through a screen or sift.
3 lipid (oil) extraction: Drying algae is a labor-intensive process that can reduce
the viability of using algae as a
fuel. Scientists are working to
develop a wet lipid extraction
4 conversion to liquid biofuel: A process
sparks chemical reactions
to create a fuel similar to