On October 23-26 the algae industry gathered in Phoenix, AZ for the Algae Biomass Summit , its annual get together. Gone are the glory days of algae biofuels capturing headlines and promising to save the world from climate change. Over the years some of the early players are gone, others have changed focus and others still are continuing the hard work of addressing the most challenging technical barriers.
Overall the algae industry is alive and kicking. At the ABS it was abundantly clear that, away from the spotlight, the accumulated knowledge of decades of work, talent and dedication is bearing fruits. Industry players – old and new – are selling products, technology and services. Revenues (albeit not in the billions) are being recorded and some folks are … drum roll … grinding out real profits.
The industry’s tag line is less about filling the tanks of our cars and airplanes and more about filling our own tank with sustainable, healthy and natural nutritional ingredients. Water quality and agricultural solutions are the latest (albeit not new) additions to the suite of high value needs algae can address.
And algae biofuels is lurking in the background, waiting for a few more technical breakthroughs to materialize and a more favorable market environment … in the form of high oil prices, more evidence – as though any was needed – that climate change is a dramatic problem that needs to be taken seriously or that drilling miles under the polar ices and blasting our way to more fossil fuels will only delay the inevitable reckoning with the hard fact that we need to find new and sustainable sources of energy, of the renewable kind
Algae for food and feed – protein, oils and pigments for human nutrition, animal and fish feed – received the most attention. Walter Rakitsky of TerraVia (formerly Solazyme) showed a professionally produced promotional video showcasing products for human nutrition including algal flour, high heat low smoke cooking oil and vegan eggs – it has to be said that Terravia’s algae are of the heterotrophic kind, those that grow on sugars rather than CO2 and sunlight.
Amha Belay of Earthrise and Margaret McCormick of Matrix Genetics both highlighted a large and growing market for natural blue pigments as food colorants … and both plan to fulfill the market demand with phycocyanin, a pigment extracted from spirulina (a cyanobacteria – the photosynthetic version of bacteria – already well known among fans of healthy nutrition)
Noteworthy was also the presence at the event of Synthetic Genomics, a synthetic biology company founded by Craig Venter and long-term partner of ExxonMobil in the field of algae. Over the years we have not heard much about their work in algae. This year’s summit clearly was their “coming out to the world” party:
· Eric Moellering presented a breakthrough in leveraging state-of-the-art genome editing technologies in algae to double lipid productivity in actively growing cells. Through fine-tuning of a novel transcription regulator with Cas9-mediated gene editing technology, the team have shown that a high-lipid productivity state can be decoupled from the cessation of growth—which is normally encountered in nitrogen starved batch cultures. These findings represent firsts in developing robust algal genome editing technologies and understanding the mechanisms that regulate algal lipid metabolism. It can also have breakthrough industrial implications by doing away with the conventional wisdom that high production rates of algal biomass are not compatible with high oil productivity
· Lou Brown presented on large scale algae cultivation, highlighting many of the pitfalls and overlooked issues related to scaling up algae biomass production. By illustrating Synthetic Genomics’ experience with commercial production of Astaxanthin (a compound in the carotenoid family widely used as a pigment and for other health benefits), he touched on some of the real world challenges with large-scale algae production, from managing microbial and ash contamination to efficient water management strategies, etc.
Some other remarkable developments heard on the floor of ABS include:
· Mark Allen of Accelergy Corporation discussed using nitrogen fixing Cyanobacteria to provide key nutrients for crops such as rice. If practically applicable, this could be a game changer in agriculture!
· Laurel Harmon of Lanzatech discussed using archaic microbes that predate phototrophs and use carbon monoxide as a carbon source. They have produced four thousand gallons of high quality jet fuel for engine testing and trial flights with Virgin Atlantic. Always good to hear some promising updates on biofuels
· Dave Hazlebeck of Global Algae Solutions showed a documentary video highlighting the need for algae biofuels and showcasing his company’s 3.2 acre algal farm, co-located with a power plant in Hawaii. The company is commercializing its Zobi proprietary harvesting system, an innovative process that does not require a flocculation step. It is important to keep in mind that the high cost of the harvesting and dewatering step is the “dirty secret” of algae. Good to see progress on this front
· John Benemann of MicroBio Engineering presented the findings of a project that used wastewater inputs for a year-long trial to grow mixotrophic algal strains (microorganisms that use both organic carbon sources and CO2 as feedstock) at remarkably high productivities. His company is proposing a 1,000 acre farm co-located with a large power plant in Orlando, Florida! Always good to hear about large-scale development from credible industry players
· Steve Mayfield of the University of California at San Diego (and founder of industry pioneer Sapphire Energy) introduces some valuable strain development tools that has been made available to the public. These technologies will enable algal scientists to be more targeted and effective in their strain development and breeding efforts. Note how lack of molecular biology tools for algae strains (when compared to those available for better established microbial strains such as e.coli or yeast) have typically been a severe limitation to R&D in the field
· Mark Heinnickel of Matrix Genetics presented findings on how the expression of a novel protein in a model Cyanobacteria strains resulted in an increased resistance to photoinhibition. Note that photoinhibition is one of the most “problematic” mechanisms in natural photsynethetic algae species, as it severely limits growth under high light conditions (those that would be preferable for commercial units)
· Jianping Yu of the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) discussed ethylene production in cyanobacteria. While unlikely to be commercially relevant per se, the presentation indicated that biosynthesis of ethylene in these microorganisms may lead to increased photosynthetic capacity. It is important to emphasize that photosynthesis is a sink-limited process … debottlenecking photosynthesis is one of the holy grails of algae R&D