Algae Industry

Johannes Skarka, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Algae have one of the highest potential for large scale production of biofuels and other bioproducts. Nevertheless, there are still limiting factors to just how much biomass can be produced. Johannes Skarka from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany has conducted some research on how land and CO2 availability will affect the algae industry in Europe.

Below is Skarka’s description of his work followed by a PDF file which contains a map with the cost of growing biomass at various sites in Europe.

“Microalgae are seen as a promising source for sustainable biofuels since they can be cultivated in photobioreactors on non-arable land and thus reduce the fuel vs. food dilemma. Furthermore they can use CO2 from industrial and power plants. However, in Europe most areas suitable for microalgae production are not located in the direct vicinity of these CO2 sources. Thus, the application of CO2 from fuel gas in algaefuel production requires a transmission infrastructure.

“Against this background a GIS-based model including pipeline transport of CO2 and land availability was developed at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) to determine the microalgal biomass production potential at site-specific costs. The results show a total potential of 45 Mt in the EU-27 for sites with biomass costs less than 2,000 US$/t on a dry matter basis. Most of the potential can be found in the southern part of Europe, particularly on the Iberian Peninsula. Assuming an oil content of 50 % of the algal biomass and by considering a correction factor for the consequent lower biomass productivity, a considerable potential of 22 % of the EU-27’s jet fuel demand could be provided by microalgae derived biofuels.”

Johannes Skarka
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Check out his work here:

Microalgal biomass for biofuels in Europe


Most entrepreneurs think big. Andy Ayers thought small . . . microscopically small.

Ayers, a native Arizonan and a marine biologist by trade, was intrigued when he moved back to his home state in the late 1990s and heard about the vast underground sea known as the Coconino Aquifer, which yielded saline groundwater in the Painted Desert in northeastern Arizona.

“We analyzed a water sample, and it was remarkably pure. My first thought was, ‘Well, let’s grow shrimp,’ ” recalls Ayers. “But at that time, the Chinese and the Taiwanese were seriously getting into the shrimp industry, at such a low cost that it would have been impossible to compete.

“Our next thought was: ‘What about algae?’ At the time, everyone was really getting interested in omega-3 (fatty acids), and we knew the fish themselves get it, through the food chain, from algae to begin with. So we decided to extract it directly from the algae.”

Ayers would eventually secure a significant U.S. patent for the exclusive aquaculture use of the Coconino Aquifer’s uniquely pristine brine water. And nine years after he co-founded what would become Algae Biosciences Incorporated, ABI is ready to make a serious splash into the global microalgae industry.

Thanks to several key factors — including ABI’s unique ability to produce ultra-pure products, its targeted large scale of low-cost production, its intellectual property base, its global “sweet spot” of growing conditions in northeast Arizona, and a rapidly expanding world market — ABI is poised to make a bold move to challenge the global algae industry across a wide range of products.

“We’ve established command of perhaps the most ideal set of production conditions available anywhere in the world,” says ABI Chairman Robert J. Thompson.

ABI’s production facilities near Holbrook, Ariz., are currently undergoing a $5-million expansion, which is expected to allow the company to reach large-scale commercial production levels by year’s end.

And first on the agenda for ABI is the extraction of ultra-pure omega-3 fatty acid oils from microalgae for customers in the nutraceutical and food additive industries. “It’s a thrilling, exciting time,” says Ayers, now the Chief Executive Officer of ABI. “Things can’t happen fast enough.”

Market demand for omega-3 fatty acid oils currently far exceeds industry production capacity, and premium prices are paid for the purest algae-based ingredients in food and nutritional products. ABI produces pure omega-3 products that contain both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) — essential fatty acids that cannot be produced by the human body — while the vast majority of competing products offer only DHA, and many are purity challenged.

According to scientific studies, omega-3 fatty acids improve heart, joint, and brain health, may be linked to lower diabetes risk, and are beneficial to cognitive functioning and development, especially for infants and children. Preliminary studies also suggest that the essential unsaturated fatty acids may be beneficial in treating depression while reducing the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and strokes. Omega-3 is currently used in such food staples as bread, milk, yogurt, juice, breakfast cereal, spreadable oils, and infant formula.

A recent report by American market research publisher Packaged Facts predicts that U.S. retail sales of omega-3-enhanced food and beverage products, which rose 11 per cent in 2010 to nearly $4 billion US, will reach close to $7 billion by 2015. “Another boom phase for omega-3-enhanced products is on the horizon,” reads the June 2 report.

The Coconino Aquifer’s brine water, directly below ABI’s plant location, is protected from sources of pollution deep below the earth’s surface. Remarkably pure, it provides a competitively unmatched, ideal, and low-cost medium for growing a wide array of marine algae.

“Over the years, we’ve carried out a screening process with various species of algae, and found a half-dozen that grow well in our system. I’ve started a process, now, to basically push these algae to produce higher amounts of omega-3,” says Ayers. “And the high-protein powder that’s left over, after we extract the omega-3 oil, is one of the best protein sources in the world.

“It has higher amounts of five of the eight essential amino acids than any other terrestrial-based protein available today.”

Thanks to its enviable production capabilities, ABI’s downstream opportunities include: pharmaceuticals, such as designer proteins, vaccines, enzymes, antibodies, and research agents; sustainable biofuels; macroalgae for human food; scientific reagents that can replace synthetic dyes in food and cosmetics; organic pigments called carotenoids, which as potent antioxidants reduce cell damage and fight disease; and liquid feed for marine life.


If you have been paying even the slightest attention to the algae industry, you probably have heard of companies like Solazyme or Synthetic Genomics, the big names that are making big public strides in the field. Algasol Renewables, on the other hand, is one name in the industry that you have probably never heard mentioned. However, Algasol looks to be on the brink of joining those big names as one of leaders in the algae industry with their photobioreactor system.

Photobioreactors (or PBR’s) come in many different shapes, sizes, and designs. Essentially, they consist of some clear material formed in a way that it can hold an algae-containing liquid. Typically, you will find them looking like long tubes, snaking back and forth, that allow sunlight to reach the algae-water concentration that is pumped through it. They work great for growing algae but have typically suffered from high initial and operating costs.

This is where Algasol comes into play. They have designed a photobioreactor system that can potentially cut costs by 90 percent. How have they done this? Well, their thinking has taken them outside the tube and placed them into a bag.

Basically, their system grows freshwater microalgae in large plastic bags that float on top of bodies of saltwater. There, as in any other bioreactor, nutrients and CO2 are pumped in to feed the algae.

This design led Frost & Sullivan to give Algasol their 2010 “Global Algae Biofuels Award.” According to them, “Algasol Renewables provides a critical and innovative method for micro algae biomass production. Its modular floating bag technology, a new variation of photobioreactors (PBRs), provides a low-cost design coupled with industrial scalability, optimal light exposure, high biomass concentration, low energy consumption, and efficient system control.”

The oceans of the world have a great potential to be the location for floating algae farms. First off, oceans cover around 70 percent of the world. With land (especially agricultural land) becoming a very precious commodity, moving production of fuel offshore is a major bonus.

Additionally, the ocean cuts out a lot of the energy costs associated with traditional PBR’s. For example, the water surrounding the bags acts as a temperature buffer, a process that would require spraying down the outsides of the photobioreactor in typical systems. Also, the wave action in the ocean helps to mix the algae in the bags, something that would otherwise take additional energy in land-based designs.

Now, some may be concerned about putting all this plastic into the ocean should a storm comes along or worried about what happens if these bags break. Luckily, engineers at Algasol have addressed both of these problems. If a storm comes along, the bags have been designed to be submerged beneath the water to levels up to 250 feet. There, they can wait out a tropical storm, hurricane, etc.

Researchers are also not too concerned if one of the bags breaks. Since the algae will be freshwater species, they will die when exposed to saltwater and there, researchers have concluded, they can become food for fish and other marine life.

Their system has proven very successful in testing conducted in conjunction with Arizona State University. Right now, after taking account for the costs, they estimate that a 250 hectares (or 418 acres) system can produce oil at $1.40/gallon before refining, or roughly $60 a barrel.

These costs are actually calculated from the lower end of production levels (35 grams of algae per square meter). Algasol has achieved significantly higher production levels and higher productivity would potentially lower the cost even more. However, reaching these production levels rely more on outside factors than on the system itself.

“At the end of the day, we are dealing with a live organism here,” Miguel Verhein, Executive Director of Algasol said. “If this organism is not taken care of under the right conditions, then we can have a variation in productivity that is irrelevant to the photobioreactor system.”

Overall, Algasol is solely a technology company that, according to Verhein, “just wanted to make the best PBR based on CAPEX/OPEX and scalability.” As such, their goal is to sell their patented product and method to companies rather than produce the algae themselves.

This goal is quickly becoming a reality, with several organizations, including one large oil company, looking to purchase their technology. As with algae industry as a whole, all that seems to be required for Algasol to make it big is a little more time.


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A.I.M. Science and Industry Advisory Board
Dr. Mark Edwards, Board Chair, Professor, Arizona State U.
Charles Bensinger, SFCC Biofuels Program Director
Dr. Russell Chapman, Executive Director, CMBC, Scripps Institution
Ben Cloud, CEO, Phyco BioSciences
Dr. Keith Cooksey, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Montana State University
Dr. Brian Goodall, CTO, OriginOil
Robert Henrikson, Former-CEO Earthrise
Alina Kulikowski-Tan, VP, Carbon Capture Corporation
Dr. Ira Levine, Associate Professor, U. of S. Maine
Jim Sears, CTO, Algae@Work