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All of a sudden... algae is everywhere

Susan Watts | 17:36 UK time, Thursday, 9 October 2008

There are all sorts of companies springing up offering algae as a universal cure-all, from jet fuel for aeroplanes, to a means of cleaning waste water and even as a new food source.

What's behind this growing fascination with algae is the promise of wealth, but with lower carbon emissions than traditional black gold. Oh, and algae can help fix climate change too.

If we grow fresh algae, this takes carbon in from the atmosphere, rather than releasing the carbon that is safely locked away in fossil fuels until we burn them.

Algae enthusiasts claim the production and burning of algal oil is a cycle that's close to carbon neutral, and urge the world to take algae seriously as we work out how to tackle climate change, food shortages and diminishing oil reserves.

My journey into the world of algae began with a trip to the less glamorous end of town in San Francisco. In an off-beat industrial park, housed in a former ice-cream factory, a company called Solazyme is banking its future on algae.

Formed by two college friends 5 years ago, Solazyme showed us a sealed flat-pack bag of the dried algae they believe holds the key to carbon neutral fuel. They asked us not film the sample because its colour might tell competitors the type of microalgae they're using.

They walked me round the labs where they're experimenting with algae samples from all over the world. They tweak some of these algal strains, genetically engineering them to thrive on wood. The wood takes carbon out of the air, the algae eat the carbon as they grow in fermenters, and the algal oil that results has just been certified as good enough to match conventional diesel and jet fuel.

The US military is interested and the company has raised a total of $45m in investment capital. They also claim to be talking to governments and airlines keen on algal oil.

One selling point for algal oil is that it doesn't have to be grown on land so doesn't compete for space with food production. In fact, Solazyme swears that the algae it doesn't turn into oil is good enough to eat. I tried their brownies made with algae instead of egg...and they weren't as bad as I was expected!

And there are other signs that this is moving beyond the research phase. A company called AlgaeLink is producing algae in greenhouses using CO2 emissions taken from a nearby power station. They claim to be producing 20 times more biofuel per hectare than conventional biofuel crops, and on non-agricultural land.

They also produce food for animals and fish and beauty products from the algae that isn't turned into oil. The firm has a tie-in with KLM/Air France to develop a jet fuel.

And there are other more long-standing algae advocates. Harry Hart has been writing to the BBC for a dozen years about a plan to save the world with algae that he hatched decades ago. It's all based on the incredible power of microalgae to grow fast, doubling in biomass in just a few hours with very few nutrients.

Mr Hart's utopian vision of feeding and fuelling the world on algae appears wildly ambitious at first sight. But in some ways he has been ahead of the curve that entrepreneurs like Solazyme and AlgaeLink are now riding.

We sent our intrepid camera man who proved so resilient on Newsnight's Arctic Adventure, George Pagliero, to meet Harry at his home in Bury-St-Edmunds.

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Harry is mistrustful of the traditional capitalist approach that's bringing algal oil to the market and sniggers at the idea of genetically engineering algae when they naturally do what he says we need - draw carbon out of the atmosphere. He sees this carbon as a source of wealth that could replace our oil-based economies.

Put simply, his plan is to take algae, grow them in controlled ponds in a mixture of salt and fresh water. The algae draw down huge quantities of carbon from the air as they grow and convert it to biomass - which we then either eat, or burn as fuel.

All this would take place in enclosed systems designed so that no climate-changing CO2 or methane gas escapes. He talks about building algal ponds on barren land, growing food where people are hungriest. You can have a look at his website here.

Harry was inspired decades ago when he worked as a cameraman filming the starving. He and a like-minded team have been working for years on versions of this scenario. They even persuaded a team at the agricultural research centre at Rothamsted to let a group of A'level students try out some of their ideas over the summer.

All this might sound far-fetched, but interest in algae is booming. There's even an algae trade group - the Algal Biomass Association - set up, they say, to promote commercially-viable transport and power generating algal fuels. They're holding their second annual algal biomass summit in Seattle this month if you want to know more..!

Watch Susan Watts reporting from Iceland here, on radical new approaches to reducing carbon in the atmosphere involving algae, artificial trees and lava.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Perhaps Harry Hart is right - it is an essentially simple and natural process that can't be patented . No patent - no royalties - no profit and more importantly no control for the big boys . Capitalism in its present form will only hinder the progress in this exciting field.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    wasn't algae put forward 1st as an alternative food source by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation books many many years ago so hardly a new idea .Another time where reality mirrors fiction rather belatedly

  • Comment number 4.

    To learn about algae commercialization you may want to check out thsi website:

    They are the first algae trade association in the US and the world.

  • Comment number 5.

    Sorry to point this out but algae as food is hardly a new idea. The Aztecs harvested it from lake Mexico and used it as a staple food. Algae cakes was one of thier favourite foods it seemed.

  • Comment number 6.

    Well I'll be tuning in, if I can find the telly somewhere. Will it be available online?

    Harry's plans are very interesting indeed and for the sake of a couple of hundred thousand quid - a former hedge fund manager's lunch budget - some serious inroads into world-changing R&D might take place, and Harry's papers properly archived for posterity.

  • Comment number 7.

    I've thought for a long time that this could be one of the solutions to the present environmental crisis. I've also thought that there must be a way of growing the phytoplankton which "fix" CO2 into calcium carbonate in the same way that the white cliffs of Dover were created. Whilst not being a source of food or fuel, they could remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

  • Comment number 8.

    #1 - to echo your sentiments, we have a similar problem with Bacteriophage treatment, a simple natural process which also can't be patented.
    The fact that it has been used by the Soviet Union since 1930's in place of antibiotics, (No russian soldier who received medical treatment in WW2 died from gangrene) that bacteria can't develop resistance against it (no MRSA, c.Difficile problem) doesn't seem to matter if business can't make money from it due to no patenting of the process.

    #3 - Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke also wrote about algal based foods although mainly for extended space travel purposes.

  • Comment number 9.

    Why does Soylent Green spring to mind?

    I hope it really does come from algae!

  • Comment number 10.

    Some comments

    Quote: "The algae draw down huge quantities of carbon from the air as they grow and convert it to biomass - which we then either eat, or burn as fuel."

    If we burn it, won't it form carbon dioxide? If we eat it then won't we form methane ultimately?

    Quote: "Put simply, his plan is to take algae, grow them in controlled ponds in a mixture of salt and fresh water."

    What would be wrong with using salt water? It might even be a good coastal industry.

  • Comment number 11.

    Just wanted to say I decided to watch Newsnight instead of question time last night and was stunned to see this piece on Virtual Trees and Algae. It was about the most intelligent piece I've see on tv for quite some time. Get Susan Watts and these stories on more often!

  • Comment number 12.

    In response to PatrickJSmith's question about burning algal biomass creating CO2, it will - however that CO2 will have been taken from the atmosphere very recently. Essentially, the CO2 is simply being temporarily removed, before being put back. This is what is meant by "Carbon Neutral" - there will be no net increase in CO2.
    Burning fossil fuels on the other hand involves the return of CO2 to the atmosphere that has been locked away for millions of years. Consequently there is a net increase in CO2.

  • Comment number 13.

    In response to SaneScientist.

    Thank you. I can agree that it is carbon neutral, and this seems like a good route to take.

    My issue (I mean that in a friendly, enjoying debate way) was with the statement: "Oh, and algae can help fix climate change too."

    So if we burn algae, we have a carbon neutral fuel. But if we dry a lot of it and bury that in a disused mine have we got method for reducing atmospheric CO2?

  • Comment number 14.

    Potentially burying this trapped CO2 could reduce CO2 - even better we could use it to replace the oil used in plastics. This would have the entirely unexpected consequence that the nice lady who runs my mum's tupperware parties could become a vanguard in the global fight agaist global warming...

  • Comment number 15.

    I t is unlikely that Solazyme's process is carbon negative, firstly, they claim to utilise wood to feed the algae, this is not necessarily C -ve when one considers the full life cycle analysis of timber, second; the wood (lignin) needs to be broken down to sugars (energy expensive process ie CO2 emitting), thirdly, the algae fermentation process also emits CO2 (NB the algae don't use sunlight to grow in their process). There are plenty of ways to produce bio-oil from micro-organisms, so I cannot see the advantage of their process. The real challenge is to grow algae intensively using sunlight (photosynthesis) and carbon dioxide from the air or combustion emissions such as power stations. AlgaeLink claim to do this, but their systems have never been proven to work by independent experts. I have seen their systems in operation, and based upon my 20 years of experience developing photobioreactors for the very same purpose, I know their claims are wildly exaggerated. Even the so called patented cleaning system was tried and tested more than 10 years ago by several other groups worldwide. The moral of the story is therefore; Don't always believe the hype!

  • Comment number 16.

    Using algae is a potential source of biofuel but everything os always greener on the other side. Corn plants naturally fix carbon dioxide but people are concerned that takes away corn from food. Algae can also be used to produce food. Algae can be genetically engineered to be more efffective so the person that says they do it naturally is a little naive since all plants do it naturally. Algae can be a source of omeage oils (this is why fish is good for you to eat since they also eat algae). Corn used for ethanol production does produce food as well - the distillers dried grains - the yeast used in the ethanol plant is an excellent feed for animals and is sold as such so it is false to say corn used for biofuel is not available for food. Same goes for soybeans. We have an infrastructure already in place to use corn and soy for biofuel but we do not for algae - and guess what -- if you strat massive scale production of algae we don't know what the environmental impacts will be --- to prduc more algae you will need to add fertilizers to water - how do we control the spread of that excessive fertilizer -- algae can produce toxins (think red tide) so how dowe deal with the pollution .,,and don't think patents will not come into play ---the processes used to produce and process the output will be patentable and if the people who develop don't try to patent them they will not get investors to give them the capital to make the whole thing happen. Nothing is a solution alone and we should start pushing one as better than another becuase often ill informed we are wrong

  • Comment number 17.

    Well done Harry Hart, 35 years later and people are starting to listen!
    Isn't it strange how simplicity is just too much for our overcomplicated 'coorporate' world.
    Algae grow faster than trees, that's all, even if we could only sustain 20x faster it like a miracle.
    All that carbon out of the air and into biomass.
    Now you can do as you will -
    fertilizer, food, oil, or maybe just dry it and burn it!
    Come on let's rally round and get some more trials going. I intend to grow phytoplankton in the back garden and turn it into briquettes for the woodburner......
    thankyou Harry Hart

  • Comment number 18.

    The real trick with algal biofuel production is to use it as an add-on to anaerobic digestion. AD is a means of processing segregated organic wastes, and the outputs are a modest amount of biogas, a solid and a liquid residue (known as digesates). The solid residue is a compost-like material, and can be used for the same applications as compost. The liquid residue is more problematic - it has reasonable levels of nutrients (N,P,K) but takes up a large volume in storage. It cannot be applied to land in wet weather, so your average AD plant needs a couple of months storage capacity (at least.)

    When you burn the biogas in a gas engine to generate electricity, your outputs apart from electricity are hot water (from the cooling circuit of the engine) and CO2.

    Oil-bearing algae need nutrient-rich water at a reasonable temperature plus elevated levels of CO2 for growth.

    Now AD is already a carbon-negative technology, given that the energy produced outweighs the cost of collection of the organic wastes that feeds the plant. It is better than composting, and considerably more so than landfill. Harnessing oil-bearing algae to use the byproducts of AD offer the possibility of a strongly carbon-negative biofuel - and one which does not use crops, but instead uses wastes which would otherwise have a significant impact in landfill.

    The downside lies with proving the technology - and the fact that two of the main rate controlling factors for algal growth in algae farms are surface area / volume ratio, and light intensity. Put bluntly, you need a big farm with a lot of tubes and good sunlight intensity to ensure that the efficiency of the process is maximised. If we crack this, we're onto a good thing. Were I an oil magnate, I would be putting money this way at this point in time. Whether or not this will work in the UK is a matter for discussion - I like to think it will, but I fear that we don't quite have enough sunlight to make this a viable year-round proposition.

  • Comment number 19.

    Burying carbon in rock is short-sighted - it is a fantastic resource. By cooking organic material you get volatiles for fuel. You also get charcoal. Mix the charcoal with poor soil and it behaves like a slow-release fertiliser. For example, I have experimented with growing vegetables in builders' sharp sand mixed with nothing but 5-10% charcoal by volume and it produces an equivalent yield to bark compost. (Not brilliant, but a lot better than sharp sand!)

    If charcoal were produced and mixed with poor, non-dry soils, fuel can be provided and long-term fertility can be achieved. Charcoal remains in the soil for many years, so the process can be carbon negative.

    Besides farming and forestry waste, I had considered miscanthus (a type of elephant grass) as a fast-growing source of organic carbon but doing the same with algae sounds as if it could do a faster job of removing carbon dioxide and increasing food production.

    I'll have to do some experiments....

  • Comment number 20.

    Thank you AdeJones for your very insightful comments. One correction though. The compost part of anaerobic digestion is far from carbon neutral. It produces a considerable amount of methane gas which is 72 times greater than carbon dioxide averaged over 20 years. I don't know the net impact this methane has compared to the sequestration of the rest of the process but it is a notable concern and one worth addressing considering the volume of digestate produced.

  • Comment number 21.

    #20 - you don't compost as part of anaerobic digestion. You can subject the solid digestate to further aerobic maturation if you wish (which is akin to composting), but it's not a given that you have to do this - it depends on the outcome you have in mind for this material (it can be landspread as it is). Maturation, as an aerobic process, does not produce methane. Indeed, composting, if you do it properly, does not produce methane either, other than in trace amounts.

    The anaerobic digestion step does produce methane, but that's what you capture for energy recovery. As you are putting energy into an aerobic process to produce compost and CO2, and you are putting less energy into the anaerobic processing of this material to produce a biogas and digestates, and the biogas gets burned to produce energy and CO2, then it is easy to make a first principles calculation to demonstrate that AD has a better CO2 footprint than IVC.

    Lots of work on this out there if you Google for it.

  • Comment number 22.

    I have been supporting the communication of these ideas for quite some time now.

    It is therefore so good to see Harry's work begin to be aired after all his years of taking the initiative. Maybe many of those who have commented have not had quite enough information on which to base a full assessment. The power of his approach is not in eating, burning or burying the microalgae, but in creating a huge, high-nutrient biomass to turn into mineral-rich fertiliser. Then we can reclaim deserts and wastelands which make up 75% of the world's land, for agroforestry - stimulating rainfall and growing more than enough superfoods and ethical biofuels, removing excess CO2 from the air in the process and restoring hope, confidence and economic well-being at the same time.

    Methane produced by the process is not released into the air, but combusted to generate further energy and the resulting exhaust gases (CO2 & water vapour are re-utilised to boost the growth of the crops/trees being cultivated)

    Hope this increases clarity.... Greg


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