Companies Reported to be Developing Genetically Modified Algae for Biofuels

The algae biofuels industry has received more publicity and media attention in the last 12-18 months than any other sector of the biofuels industry. Recent developments, more on the business side than the technology side, have brought algae into the spotlight, and this has brought the usual amounts of hype and hope (on the one hand) and criticism and skepticism (on the other). It is far beyond the scope of this blog to try to exhaustively summarize everything that has been said or written about the potential for algal biofuels, but I will try to put some of these issues into context and assess the chances for success of biodiesel, jet fuels, ethanol and other transportation fuels produced using algae, particularly those made with algal strains enhanced using modern biotechnology. 

Because algae are naturally capable of producing large amounts of fatty acids, and can be grown on nonarable land (without competition with food crops) using only sunlight and water for growth, this category of organism has long been considered to have potential for producing transportation fuels, particularly biodiesel, which is produced by the chemical transesterification of fatty acids. Algae drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy in the wake of the energy crisis of the late 1970s, and from 1978 to 1996, the DOE’s Office of Fuels Development funded a program to develop renewable transportation fuels from algae. The main focus of the program, known as the Aquatic Species Program, was the production of biodiesel from high lipid-content algae grown in ponds, in particular utilizing waste CO2 from coal fired power plants. Although this program supported significant scientific advances in algal biology and in the design and operation of open ponds for large-scale algal growth, the project concluded that the costs of producing biodiesel using algae remained too high for this route to be a competitive source of transportation fuel. As stated in the 1998 DOE close-out publication for this program: 

“The factors that most influence cost are biological, and not engineering-related. These analyses point to the need for highly productive organisms capable of near-theoretical levels of conversion of sunlight to biomass. Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs”.

Because of these and other technical hurdles, very little progress was seen towards increased large-scale commercial use of algae for biodiesel or other fuels, and many have been skeptical that algae would ever become a significant production route for transportation fuels. Nevertheless, a substantial number of companies have continued plugging away at developing algal biodiesel as a viable fuel, and many new companies have been established for this purpose. The Algal Biomass Organization now has over 170 members (according to their 2009 annual report) and has become a prominent voice for the industry. The industry benefitted from increased media attention through the announcement of several significant business deals and/or research alliances between algae biofuel companies and larger energy companies, not least of which was the research partnership announced in 2009 between ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics (described below), as well as the increasing market presence of some of the newer, more innovative algae companies that have attracted venture capital money or other high-profile investments. However, in spite of the increased commercial attention, the economics of producing biodiesel using algae remains a significant concern, as evidenced by the intensive lobbying effort by the industry for a change in U.S. tax policy to allow algae fuel producers to access the $1.01 per gallon production tax credit that is available to manufacturers of other advanced biofuels. As of this writing, legislation to accomplish this has passed both houses of Congress, having passed the Senate in early March 2010, and is awaiting action by a conference committee before it can achieve final approval and be signed into law. 

Along with this increased visibility has come additional skepticism of algae’s potential, most recently a 2010 paper in Environmental Science and Technology from the University of Virginia claiming that use of algae for biofuels entailed greater environmental impacts in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage than the use of conventional crops. The Algal Biomass Organization has vigorously objected to this study and has issued a press release refuting its conclusions, largely on the basis that the UVA study “was based upon obsolete data and grossly outdated business models, and overlooked tremendous improvements in technology and processes across the [algal biofuel] production cycle”. But there have been other, positive, developments for the algae biofuel industry: in February 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency, in issuing final regulations under the Renewable Fuels Standard, announced its determination that diesel produced from algal oils complies with the 50% greenhouse gas reduction threshold and therefore qualifies as an “advanced biofuel” that could be used to satisfy biodiesel mandates; and in January of this year, the Energy Department announced nearly $80 million in funding for research and development on algae-based fuels, most of which will go to two research consortia In addition, as mentioned in an earlier entry of this blog, there has been a large uptick of interest in the use of biological systems, including algae, for the production of jet fuels, with several airlines conducing highly-publicized test flights using jet biofuels, and with the announcement of several high-profile research collaborations relating to microbial, algal or biomass-based production of jet fuel. 

Without delving too deeply into any of the controversies swirling around the use of algae for biofuels or the  differences of opinion about its prospects, I would note that the companies and technology strategies I’m discussing in this blog provide a good deal of hope that many of the historic shortcomings of algal production systems can be overcome. It is believed that enhancing the efficiency of photosynthesis or algal growth or increasing the output of fatty acids, hydrocarbons and oils by genetic manipulation and/or improved strain selection, along with engineering improvements in the way algae are grown and processed, will begin to make it much more economically feasible to produce diesel or jet fuels using algae. Much attention has also recently been directed at co-localization of algal biofuel plants at or near sources of carbon dioxide release, not only to improve the efficiency and economics of biofuel production but also for environmental benefit as a carbon capture strategy. Many of the companies profiled here, as well as others developing or using innovative non-GMO technology and process engineering improvements are operating pilot facilities that are already producing biodiesel, jet fuels or ethanol using algae, leading to some hope that the corner has been turned commercially. 

There are of course no guarantees that any of the companies profiled here, or any particular technological improvement will succeed where others have failed in the past, but many observers do feel that all this new intellectual brainpower will give us the best chance to date of seeing an economical, profitable algal biofuel industry. So there is reason to be guardedly optimistic, but the next few years should tell the tale, as more companies move to larger scale production and begin to achieve wider market acceptance. 

The following are the companies that are believed to be using or developing algae genetically enhanced in some manner, in biofuel production. Inclusion in this entry of the blog is based on press or Internet reports, and in some cases is not necessarily confirmed on company websites, and not every company listed is using “genetic engineering” technologies as opposed to more traditional methods of modifying or enhancing biological function. Also, it’s worth noting that these companies represent only a subset of the large number of companies now active in the algal biofuels arena – since my blog deals only with uses of advanced biotechnology techniques, I am not mentioning or discussing the dozens of other companies that are using naturally-occurring or other nonmodified algal strains for production of biodiesel or other fuels, even though some of these companies are developing technological innovations in reactor design, process engineering, and other key steps of the fuel production process. 

  • Algenol Biofuels
  • Aurora Biofuels
  • AXI LLC
  • Global Green Solutions
  • Kuehnle AgroSystems
  • Planktonix Corporation
  • Sapphire Energy
  • Solazyme
  • Synthetic Genomics
  • Targeted Growth

The following are brief profiles of companies that are developing engineered or modified algae for the production of biofuels. These profiles have been adapted or excerpted from company websites and/or other publicly available information, and I don’t assume any liability for the accuracy, comprehensiveness or use of the information. 

Algenol Biofuels Inc. is pursuing a strategy different from most other algal biofuel companies: it is developing technology to use metabolically enhanced algae to produce ethanol, in a process it calls its DIRECT TO ETHANOL™ technology. Algenol has engineered cyanobacteria to express the enzymes pyruvate decarboxylase and alcohol dehydrogenase, allowing the algae to convert the common Krebs cycle molecule pyruvate first to acetaldehyde and then to ethanol, linking ethanol production to the photosynthesis that drives algal growth and metabolism. The enhanced algae are grown in proprietary Capture TechnologyTM bioreactors. These bioreactors are contained and sealed units that hold algae in the bioreactor, prevent contamination, maximize ethanol recovery and allow for fresh water recovery. Algenol claims to have the most advanced 3rd generation biofuels technology and the company says its technology is capable of producing industrial-scale, low-cost ethanol using algae, sunlight, CO2, and seawater, without the use of food, farmland, or fresh water. 

The initial proof of concept was generated by Dr. John Coleman at the University of Toronto between 1989 and 1999. Since then, the process has been refined to allow algae to tolerate high heat, high salinity, and the alcohol levels present in ethanol production. The company says they have access to over 100,000 useable species of blue-green algae with rapid growth cycles, high photosynthesis efficiency, large sugar storage attributes for use with its Direct to EthanolTM process. The algae are metabolically enhanced to produce ethanol while being resistant to high temperature, high salinity, and high ethanol levels, which were previous barriers to ramping to commercial scale volumes. 

Algenol says its prototype production strains can produce ethanol at a rate of 6,000 gallons/acre/year, and the company was expecting yields to have improved to 10,000 gallons/acre/year by the end of 2009. With further refinement, Algenol says that the algae cells have the potential to increase production rates to 20,000 gallons/acre/year in the future. Algenol has been building a pilot plant in Freeport, Texas, in collaboration with Dow Chemical, and in December 2009, Algenol received a $25 million “stimulus” grant to continue working with Dow and Georgia Tech to build this pilot biorefinery. More recently, the company received a $10 million incentive from Lee County, Florida for Algenol to move into a 43,000 square foot facility near Fort Myers, Florida that will serve as company headquarters beginning in May 2010 and will serve as a pilot production plant, anticipated to be able to produce 300,000 gallons of ethanol per year, which is reported to be three times the capacity of the Freeport plant under construction. Ethanol production from the new plant is expected by August 2010. 

Algenol has entered into a license agreement with Sonora Fields S.A.P.I. de C.V., a wholly owned subsidiary of Biofields S.A.P.I. de C.V. in Mexico and is currently working closely with Sonora Fields and both local and federal Mexican governments to commercialize the DIRECT TO ETHANOL™ process, with commercial sales expected in Sonora, Mexico by the end of 2010. 

Aurora Biofuels generates biodiesel from optimized algae in a patented production process. The company has developed a cost-competitive, scalable method for fuel generation using robust, highly-productive custom algae strains in open pond systems, which the company is rapidly commercializing. Aurora has successfully operated a pilot facility since August of 2007, and is developing a 20-acre demonstration plant that was expected to be completed in 2009, that will further showcase the company’s ability to produce biofuel at scale. Aurora expects to begin commercial production in 2012. The biodiesel produced from the pilot facility has successfully passed ASTM standards, and the consistency of fuel production over the trial period marks a success in perfecting the company’s chosen pathway of low-cost open pond algae production systems. The achievement showcases the company’s pathway to cost-effectively producing consistent-quality biofuels from algae in industrial-scale volumes, and points to the company’s readiness to pursue the commercialization of its biofuel process. 

Aurora Biofuels combines the latest in biotechnology and process engineering to create a pathway for the cost-effective mass production of algae based biofuels. Aurora’s scientific research team has screened a myriad of strains in search of microalgae that outperform others in terms of oil production and yield. Aurora has further bred its select portfolio to maximize fuel-production performance and to be cost-effective at scale. 

The Aurora process does not compete for agricultural resources. Aurora has a minimal environmental footprint: the system, which is extremely efficient in terms of land usage, uses salt water in its ponds and can be built on nonarable land. The company says that its process can produce an equivalent amount of fuel as sugar-based fuels, using approximately 1/25th the land space, and that the company’s approach is 70-100 times more productive than  oil-rich agricultural crops, . Aurora’s algae feed on carbon dioxide and sequester 90 percent of the CO2 fed into their environment. Because of this ability, Aurora Biofuels hopes to become an important player in the emerging cap-and-trade market by converting carbon producers’ waste emissions into algae feedstock. 

In June 2008, Aurora announced that it completed a second round of funding, raising $20 million. The round was led by existing investor Oak Investment Partners. Previous Series A investors Gabriel Venture Partners and Noventi also participated in the round. In August 2009, Aurora announced that it succeeded in optimizing its base algae strains to more than double CO2 consumption and fuel production, using a proprietary process which allows for the superior selection and breeding of non-transgenic algae. The company has proven these results in an outdoor open system, with the result that these algae strains can produce more than twice the amount of oil. 

AXI, LLC has been created by the venture capital firm Allied Minds and the University of Washington to commercialize novel technology that creates improved strains of algae for the production of biofuels. Allied Minds says that new algae strains will bridge the gap between the promise of clean energy generation and the reality of economical biofuel production systems. AXI is initially targeting the development of unique physiological traits that permit efficient growth and processing of algae using proprietary techniques and supported by 25 years of primary phycology research. 

The research team at the Cattolico Laboratory at the University of Washington (AXI’s academic founders) has been investigating the physiology of algae for more than 25 years. The result of this work is the discovery of several unique and advantaged varieties of algae, and, more importantly, the ability to customize and optimize virtually any species of algae to maximize its commercial usefulness. In January 2010, AXI was part of a consortium – the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuel and Bio-products (NAABB) – that was awarded a $44 million grant in federal stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy. The consortium will use the funds to develop a systems approach for sustainable commercialization of algal biofuels, and AXI will contribute at the front end of this initiative with its expertise in algal biology. 

Global Green Solutions Inc. (GGRN), with operations in North America, Europe, and South Africa, develops and implements ecotechnology solutions for renewable energy generation. Founded in 2006, GGRN has developed two innovative biomass technologies; Greensteam, a high-efficiency combustion system that generates industrial steam and electrical power from waste biomass; and Global Green Algae, a self-contained algae growing system which produces biofuel feedstock.

In the Global Green Algae program, the company looks to increase future biomass fuel production and resources by rapidly growing algae for production of biofuels and co-products. The residual biomass after extraction of the algal oil contains chemical elements which are suitable for animal feed, agriculture, specialty chemicals, cosmetics, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical applications. The Company is carrying out a two-stage program: Stage 1 is a two-year R&D program including construction of a facility for algae bioscience research, and the development and testing of algae photobioreactor growing processes. The Stage 2 R&D program will be focused on the algae growing process economic and operational sustainability issues. This will require an integrated program of algae transgenic technology and physiology and advanced process and materials engineering. GGRN is seeking strategic partners in North America and Europe for the Stage 2 R&D program. 

Kuehnle AgroSystems is an algae seedstock and strain development company that develops algae by traditional and GMO strategies for the renewable fuel and chemical markets, as well as strains for aquaculture. The company, based in Honolulu, HI, produces customized EliteAlgaeTM and MightyMealTM strains of algae and is also providing algae strains for several federally-funded algae biofuels programs. Kuehnle is developing modified algae for closed bioreactor systems, creating platform technology to enable genetic manipulation of multiple species of algae, including custom strain development for end user clients. The company also maintains a collection of native Hawaiian species that are being used for open pond biofuel projects.

Planktonix Corporation is utilizing a coalition-based approach for research, development, deployment and commercialization of microcrop-based (green algae and cyanobacteria) biofuels production. The company maintains three main bioenergy technology development initiatives: (1) algal and cyanobacterial biomass-to-lipid biodiesel/biocrude production (with a 100,000 GPY pilot production facility planned with coalition partners, targeted to break ground in the summer of 2010); (2) streamlined bacterial fermentation of waste biomass (corn stover and switchgrass) to biobutanol; and (3) a biomass-free direct production technology to produce biobutanol and co-products without any requiring any refining or fermentation steps, utilizing bioengineered strains of oxyphotobacteria through a modified photosynthetic biochemical pathway process. 

Planktonix has formed a strong coalition of academic, industry, non-profit and National Laboratory partners to develop solutions to these very compelling bioenergy challenges. The coalition, called the National PhytoFuels Energy Innovation Hub (NPEIH), includes institutions such as Brookhaven National Laboratory, Old Dominion University, South Dakota State University, Ohio State University, SunsOil LLC, and Emery Energy Corporation, among others. 

Planktonix and its partners have developed algal biofuels processes that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the lead time from start-up to commercial-scale production, optimize “lowest cost” advanced biofuels production, reduce costs using a systems approach. Planktonix has identified seven target species of phytoplankton with unique characteristics ideal for biofiltration or biofuels production. The Planktonix process relies on waste materials and microcrops to create several types of biofuel. Through microcrop biotechnology, Planktonix and its partners will use utility-scale installations to reduce toxins while using existing infrastructure to develop, deliver, and store biofuels. Through algal biotechnology, Planktonix and its partners will optimize the algal species and growth conditions that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly.   

Sapphire Energy is focused on the entire “pond to pump” value chain and is developing technology spanning the entire algae-to-fuel process. The company is developing industrial algae strains through synthetic biology and breeding techniques and are building the technologies and systems for CO2 utilization, cultivation, harvesting and refining. The algae and processes developed are field tested at a New Mexico research and development center where all the processes — from biology to cultivation to harvest and extraction — can be performed at a pilot scale. These processes result in a product called Green Crude which can be refined into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. 

Sapphire’s goal is to become the world’s leading producer of renewable petrochemical products, based on a molecular platform that converts sunlight and CO2 into renewable, carbon-neutral alternatives to conventional fossil fuels. Sapphire uses photosynthetic microorganisms to produce a renewable, high-value replacement for fossil fuel petroleum, using only sunlight, CO2 and non-potable water, and which can be produced in large scale on non-arable land. The goal is to develop biological production methods for the production of transportation fuels, including high-octane gasoline, to ASTM certification standards. The company’s final products will have the same chemical composition as gasoline and will be completely compatible with the existing refining, distribution and fleet infrastructure. 

In 2008, Sapphire successfully produced 91-octane gasoline from algae that fully conforms to ASTM certification standards. In 2009, the company participated in a test flight using algae-based jet fuel in a Boeing 737-800 twin-engine aircraft, and that same year, Sapphire provided the fuel for the world’s first cross-country tour of a gasoline vehicle powered with a complete drop-in replacement fuel containing a mixture of hydrocarbons refined directly from algae-based Green Crude. In 2010, the company expects to break ground for an Integrated Algal Bio-Refinery in Southern New Mexico, a project that was awarded more than $100 million in federal “stimulus” grant money from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act through the U.S. Department of Energy and a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bio-refinery Assistance Program. 

Solazyme, Inc., a renewable oil and bioproducts company, uses algal biotechnology to renewably produce clean fuels, chemicals, foods and health science products. Solazyme’s advanced and proprietary technology uses algae to produce oils and biomaterials in standard fermentation facilities quickly, cleanly, cost effectively, and at large scale. These natural oils and biomaterials are tailored, not only for fuel production, but also as replacements for fossil-derived petroleum and a variety of natural plant oils and compounds. 

Solazyme produces an oil-based fuel, Soladiesel®, at industrial manufacturing scale with production capabilities currently in the tens of thousands of gallons, and plans to ramp up production for demonstration and pre-commercialization purposes. The company’s indirect photosynthesis process uses microalgae to convert biomass directly into oil and other biomaterials, a process that can be performed in standard commercial fermentation facilities cleanly, quickly, and at low cost and large scale. The company has manufactured thousands of gallons of oil and hundreds of tons of biomaterials that are tailored not only for biofuel production, but also as replacements for fossil petroleum and plant oils and compounds in a diverse range of products from oleochemicals to cosmetics and foods. 

Among corporate highlights, the company has obtained a $57 million third round of funding from venture groups including Braemar Energy Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, VantagePoint, Roda Group, and Harris & Harris. The company was also selected by the U.S. Department of Defense to research, develop, and demonstrate commercial scale production of algae-derived F-76 Naval Distillate fuel for testing and fuel certification to demonstrate it meets all military specifications and functional requirements. The contract includes both R&D and fuel delivery components and calls for delivery of over 20,000 gallons of Soladiesel F-76 fuel to the Navy for compatibility testing over the next year. In December 2009 Solazyme announced that it had received a $21.8 million federal grant to build its first integrated biorefinery in rural Riverside, Pennsylvania, marking a major step toward commercial scale production of algal based fuel. The project will enhance the national infrastructure investment in biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels and will create or preserve many green jobs. The project funding was announced today by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Synthetic Genomics Inc. was founded to commercialize genomic-driven technologies, and is based on the pioneering research of its founders J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith, M.D., and the leading scientific teams they have assembled. The company’s scientific capabilities encompass areas such as environmental genomics, microbiology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, plant genomics, genome engineering, synthetic biology, and climate change. In addition to its own in-house research, the company sponsors more basic research at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a not-for-profit organization with more than 400 scientists and staff working on a variety of genomic research and policy fronts.

SGI is working in three broad projects areas of renewable fuels and chemicals (alliance with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company to develop algal biofuels), microbial-enhanced hydrocarbon recovery (collaboration with BP), and sustainable agricultural products (collaboration with Asiatic Centre for Genome Technology [ACGT]). In the fuels area, SGI and ExxonMobil, the last of the oil majors to commit to a major investment in biofuels, announced that its Research and Engineering unit will invest $300 million into in-house algae research, and up to an additional $300 million in La Jolla-based Synthetic Genomics, the genetics firm founded by J. Craig Venter that has been working on algae-to-energy research since 2005. SGI and ExxonMobil have established a multi-year research and development strategic alliance focused on exploring the most efficient and cost effective ways to produce next generation biofuels using photosynthetic algae. In this partnership, SGI will continue its work to discover and develop superior strains of algae using leading edge genomic technologies. ExxonMobil’s engineering and scientific expertise will be utilized throughout the program, from the development of systems to increase the scale of algae production through to the manufacturing of finished fuels. 

SGI is also applying its cutting-edge synthetic biology tools to develop new microbial solutions to convert lignocellulosic biomass into advanced fuels and chemicals in a simple and cost-effective, one-step conversion process, known as Consolidated Bio-processing. The alliance with ACGT is aimed at improving oil crops such as Jatropha using genomics and the company’s other advanced technologies. 

Targeted Growth, Inc. (TGI) is a crop biotechnology company focused on developing products with enhanced yield and improved quality for the agriculture and energy industries. Founded in 1998, TGI has developed a technology portfolio based on the principle that regulating cell cycle processes can directly and significantly enhance plant yields. Much of TGI’s activities are devoted to modifying plant species as superior biofuel feedstocks, but the company also maintains an active research program in algae. The company is reportedly focusing on cultivation and genetic engineering of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) algae strains for use in production of renewable fuels. I will include a more complete profile of Targeted Growth in the next series of blog entries, focusing on the companies modifying plants for biofuel use. 

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in several fields of biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of nearly thirty years in the biotech industry, with expertise in patents, technology licensing, industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, and market and technology assessments. This blog provides back-up and expanded content to complement a presentation Dr. Glass made at the EUEC 2010 conference on February 2, 2010 entitled “Prospects for the Use of Genetic Engineering in Biofuel Production.” The slides from that presentation are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99.

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6 thoughts on “Companies Reported to be Developing Genetically Modified Algae for Biofuels

    • John, as far as I know, none of these companies are at commercial stage yet with any process involving engineered algae. Some are at, or nearly at, the point of having an operational pilot plant, and there are some companies closer to commercial use with algal strains that are not genetically modified. You specifically asked about companies hoping to develop processes that involve a carbon capture technology utilizing a CO2 stream. There may be some companies that are doing this at or near commercial scale, but they would all be using nonengineered or nonproprietary algal strains. I don’t know for sure, but I think that none of the companies that I profiled, that are developing modified or prorietary strains, are yet at a commercial scale for a process involving a dedicated CO2 stream. Hope this answers your question; I’d be happy to discuss further.

  1. I fully agree to above statements and concepts, and mainly , how to use biotechnological tools for enhancing Biofuels production.
    This is very useful information and precaution for Global Warming and , and how is alga play a very imporant role.in food and fuel.

  2. Thank you for your review! I’d like to work in this field.. but still there aren’t so many companies dealing with algae biotechnology. Hope it will change asap =)

  3. Green Foreigners | Fuel for Thought

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