I've been waiting for a big piece of news to break before I brought you another article about algae biofuel.
You see, the ongoing recession has put the brakes on technologies that haven't reached scale. It's been tough to get capital for viable energy-producing projects, let alone for continued R&D into an uncommercialized technology.
But while the recession has taken away capital, it has left algae's potential untouched. Just because it's not here now doesn't mean algae won't be highly successful in the future. It has all the characteristics of the perfect feedstock. . . and then some.
(If you aren't aware of the fundamentals of algae by now, make sure you check out our Investing in Algae Biofuel report.)
And some big energy players are taking notice, providing the news I've been waiting for.
Exxon's $600 Million Algae Bet
Before I get to the bold topic above, let me take a second to address Big Oil's growing interest in cleantech. As I noted in Green Chip a few weeks ago, oil companies are increasingly pursuing renewable energy, but in their own unique way.
They're looking for projects with high returns that allow them to exploit their immense industry knowledge and in-place infrastructure. This means pursuing biofuels (because of their liquid fuel infrastructure) and geothermal energy (because of their drilling know-how).
That said, algae is a good place for oil companies to be. And Exxon knows it.
So much so that the company recently announced a $600 million foray into the sector. This is the equivalent of the queen's blessing, the Midas touch. The king of energy is looking for successors.
And they're fairly confident in their selection. According to Dr. Emil Jacobs, Exxon's VP of R&D, "Meeting the world's growing energy demands will require a multitude of technologies and energy sources. We believe that biofuel produced by algae could be a meaningful part of the solution in the future if our efforts result in an economically viable, low net carbon emission transportation fuel."
Michael Dolan, the Senior VP, added to the praise for algae, saying, ". . .algae-based fuels could help meet the world's growing demand for transportation fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
But as excited as they are about algae's potential, both men offered caveats about the "significant work and years of research that must be completed." The real challenge is being able to create economically viable algae biofuel in large volumes, which will require "significant advances in both science and engineering."
This announcement certainly brings validity and positive PR to the sector, but there are many companies that have been pursuing and trying to perfect algae biofuel for years.
One such company I've been following is OriginOil, and I recently had a chance to sit down with the CEO for an interview.
An Algae Up-and-Comer
Unlike some companies whose sole goal is to produce large quantities algae biofuel, OriginOil takes a pure technology approach. As was mentioned above, there is still much work to be done before algae is viable on a commercial scale.
The goal of OriginOil is to break down the remaining barriers to algae's development at all levels, from plant growth to oil separation. By perfecting each level of growth and production, the company can set the stage for algal oil production across the globe.
Think of it like a platform, like Microsoft Windows, that will then be adopted by multiple producers of biofuel, just as Windows is adopted by multiple computer-makers.
Of course, I don't need to tell you about the profit implications of being the platform technology for an entire industry. And OriginOil is well on its way to establishing itself as such.
They have a novel, patented process for growing algae that introduces all the inputs — carbon dioxide, water, and nutrients — on a micron level. This allows for instant, even, and thorough absorption.
The vessel they use to grow the algae, called a bioreactor, is also quite unique and advantageous. It's a vertical shaft with specialized lights placed at different heights, allowing algae to be grown at multiple levels rather than just on the surface of an open pond.
They've also developed a proprietary process for harvesting the oil from the algae once grown. Called "Quantum Fracturing," electric pulses are used to break down the algae cells and release the oil before a simple gravitational process is used to separate it. This system could save 90% of the energy used in traditional methods.
As you can see, OriginOil is working on perfecting algal oil from the proverbial soup to nuts, knocking off remaining barriers one by one. Their most recent development is a lighting system that responds continuously to the algae's behavior, improving "energy efficiency and growth rates by ensuring the right types and amounts of light are used at all times as the algae grows to maturity."
Keep an eye out for this company as their technologies become ubiquitous and are adopted by biofuel producers worldwide.
In the meantime, you can check out my interview with CEO of OriginOil Riggs Eckelberry in my new algae biofuel report.
Call it like you see it,