January 25, 2008 4:00 AM PST

Algae: Another way to grow edible oils

In the future, french fries might be infused with all the brimming, healthy flavor of oil produced by algae.

Biotechnology company Solazyme, which is developing techniques for converting vats of algae into car and plane fuel, will also exploit its manufacturing processes to make oils for other industries, including the food industry.

The company is already working on edible oils, Harrison Dillon, Solazyme's president, told CNET News.com. Ideally, these oils could provide greater health benefits, cost less, and be more environmentally friendly to grow than current cooking oils.

"We can provide tailor-made oils," Dillon said.

The ability to shift into new markets largely revolves around the nature of algae itself and the processes employed by the company. First, the creatures: algae are seriously greasy. The North Sea oil field and other large deposits are the fossilized remnants of algal blooms from hundreds of millions of years ago. They weren't formed by dinosaurs.

"These organisms have the most efficient pathways on the planet for oil production," added Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme's CEO. "Algae are the original oil producers."

Growing algae
Credit: Solazyme
Algae being grown in dishes in
Solazyme's labs. The company plans
to grow the algae in large vats,
like the kind you see in brew pubs,
with sugar to fatten the organisms
up. Oil from the algae can then be
used to make fuel or cooking oil.

Additionally, more complex plants evolved from algae. As a result, the basic biochemistry for getting algae to produce oil remains similar to what's seen in rapeseed or soy plants. Through selective breeding and other techniques, strains of algae can be induced to generate oils with very specific properties (such as a certain fatty acid content, smoke point, or viscosity).

Algae on a sugar binge
Meanwhile, Solazyme has come up with a fermentation process that the company claims allows it to produce large amounts of biomass rapidly. The company inserts algae (typically one species) into a vat, dumps in a bunch of sugar, and then controls the pressure and other environmental factors inside the vat to induce the algae to metabolize the sugar into body oil.

Competitors such as GreenFuel Technologies or LiveFuels grow algae through photosynthesis. Solazyme claims that fermentation is much more efficient. (More on this later.)

"The algae are very productive on sugar," said Wolfson. "They are bathed in their energy source."

For the food world, fermentation provides flexibility, said Harrison. Farmers chose to grow different oil plants largely out of necessity. Palm trees don't grow well in the Midwest, so farmers there specialize in soybean oil instead. Even when possible, switching crops requires planning and plowing.

In an industrial fermenter, switching crops effectively involves cleaning out the fermenter and inserting the desired mix of microorganisms and sugars.

Companies concentrating on food, water, and agriculture are rapidly gaining interest from investors, despite limited press coverage. The math is fairly compelling: the world's population is growing, current crops take inordinate amounts of energy and water to produce, and we're running out of land and water.

Another plus is these markets--along with the markets for industrial oils--might be easier to crack than the transportation fuel business. Although Solazyme inked a research-and-development deal with Chevron, getting a fuel company to commit to a new type of liquid fuel is a gargantuan task. Don Paul, CTO of Chevron, estimated last year that it takes about 15 years and $3 billon to develop a new liquid fuel.

Some people will likely recoil at the idea of buying algal cooking oil, but it probably won't taste like a pond. The marketing departments in food processing giants will also likely work on some clever names, too. After all, if they just called health-food supplement Spirulina "water scum," it probably wouldn't have sold either. (Conversely, you can drink biodiesel. I have. It takes like Wesson that's been left out for a few days.)

And when the oil is extracted, Solazyme can sell the remaining byproducts.

"We can sell the non-oil biomass for animal feed," said Dillon.

Dillon and Wolfson both point out that Solazyme has been in business since 2003--well before the energy investment craze--and have enlisted prominent academics such as molecular biologist David Stern, of Cornell University, to work at the company or sit on its advisory board. (The company originally planned to get into hydrogen production too, but gave up on that.)

In fact, you could say that the company goes back even further. Dillon and Wolfson met on their first day of college back in the 1980s. They wanted to start a company together but had only a vague notion of what to do. Dillon went into biotechnology and ultimately also became a patent attorney. Wolfson got a law degree and an MBA and went into finance.

When the two first sought funds, most venture capital firms were intrigued by their idea, but didn't know how to position the company in their portfolio. Ultimately, investors shuttled the two to the partners who handled pharma deals.

See more CNET content tagged:
oil, Chevron Corp., plant, food


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Same problem as ethanol - but worse.
Taking sugar (a real petro-chemical fertilizer hog) from terrestrial sugar cane and beet farms and then feeding it algae to turn it into oil would seem to make little sense, biologically or economically - or than turning it into ethanol - which also makes no environmental or economic sense. The promise of algae oil is that it will make fuel oil from sunshine and waste nutrients such as animal and human sewage wastes. The promise is yet to be realized not because of a lack of algae production technology, its because the production economics of harvesting the algae, separating the water from it, disrupting the algae cells to release the lipids and then separating the lipids from this process debris, then separating remaining water from the lipids, and then adding chemical stabilizers to prevent the lipids from oxidizing before they can be used as fuels during storage. Once again folks - its not about the algae its about the economics.
Posted by duggerdm (103 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You could have said the same thing about oil
Just getting oil out of the ground is hard enough, but then you have to build a pretty complex plant to turn it into gasoline and other fuels. Yet, it is still done, requiring the investment of billions of dollars. Fifty years ago, when the first researchers wanted to make an integrated circuit, there were obstacles they had to overcome, and obviously they were solved, or we wouldn't be having this conversation. And it's not going to take 50 years to advance the state of the art in technologies like biofuels, as there are now things like computers that speed up research and development.

Investing in renewable energy is the best use of capital society can make today. Every path taken will not produce a winner, but if you reject every idea because it can't be immediately realized, you will be guaranteed to fail.

Not all sugar is produced with petrochemical fertilizers, just here in the US, where it is uneconomical to grow without import restrictions. And my interpretation of the article (I'm not a chemist) is that the sugar used in this process is not a feedstock, but a catalyst, and would not be required in large quantities relative to the amount of oil produced.
Posted by kgsbca (185 comments )
Link Flag
I think you are missing the target market
They are talking about making oil for human consumption. Last
time I checked a gallon of cooking oil costs quite a bit, sugar
doesn't. If you can efficiently convert sugar (which is cheap) into
cooking oil, you can make money. If you can create designer oils
for human consumption, than you could make a ton of money.
Posted by atmx2000 (16 comments )
Link Flag
Soylent Green is people!
Couldn't resist... :)
Posted by zbrett (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
LOL ! You bastard you stole my line! LOL
LOL you commie! you stole my line LOL!
Posted by bob1xxxx (357 comments )
Link Flag
It's beautiful...it's beautiful
so glad you did that. Kept thinking of charlton heston while writing this. It was is apocalyptic period--apes, soylent, omega man.

PS, it was on TV recently and Dick Van Patten plays the guy that Heston muscles out of hte way in the crematorium.
Posted by michael kanellos (65 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Glad you appreciated the comment
I never thought of it as Heston's apocalyptic period, but you are dead on in that observation. All three movies are sci-fi classics, and I haven't seen Soylent Green or Omega Man in years. Time to set up the Tivo to record those whenever they show up again...

Meanwhile, back to our previous programming of oily algae... :)
Posted by zbrett (4 comments )
Link Flag
tell us more about fermentation
photosynthesis takes the carbon out of CO2 and turns it into carbohydrates and sugars through the input of sunlight, right?

fermentation requires sugars and generally generates alcohol and CO2 - and incidentally may be causative to things like the cost of foodstocks rising and the tortilla riots.

was there another fermentation you were referring to that doesn't start with glucose?

Please tell us more.
Posted by eco-logos (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
economics = btus
as already noted, there's issues here. functionally oil or coal, whether north sea or wesson, or peabody or whatever is a capacitor for old sunlight. sugar is the same. now, move the sugar (btus) grow the sugar (btus) heat the sugar (btus) refine the fat (btus) and you get? a lot of btus consumed.
designer oils on the cheap? possibly. great for cosmetics and pharma industry.
fuel substitute? the numbers cannot add up.
oils from algae using sunlight that would otherwise be btus added to the atmosphere? great idea.
methane slurry being used as part of landfill reclamation and recycling feeding the methane to fuel cells? awesome.
but this article only envisages using biologic catalysts to turn simple hydrocarbons into complex ones for a given end. that's not a conservation or reclamation of energy anywhere.
Posted by bridge solution (42 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Need the numbers
The algae is fed "free" BTUs, from the sun, and that has to be calculated in.

If "Gross energy produced" minus "energy input" is a positive number, then the process is successful. I've seen a number of people who insist the "energy input" figure has to be less than the "_Net_ energy produced". Got to watch tha "gross" and "net".

"Sugar" covers a lot of chemicals; which do they use? Can the necessary chemical be produced without effecting food supplies? (Or taking up crop land?)
Posted by Phillep_H (497 comments )
Link Flag
How is this more efficient when the algae require a heavily processed substance - sugar? So we raise sugar beets/cane, process them into sugar (requiring more energy and creating more pollutants), which we then feed to the algae, which gives us oil? How is that more efficient than raising a single crop that goes straight to oil like canola, or soybean?

The other algae process mentioned in use by other companies uses photosynthesis which would be greener since it would be extracting CO2 from the air to help produce it's own sugars.
Posted by DigitalFrog (301 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Crops - canola, soybean, etc require large tracts of plantable land, vast amounts of water, and fertilizer to grow. Algae can be grown in manufactured ponds or "plastic bags" on a parking lot. No contest.
Posted by katinpuyallup (1 comment )
Link Flag
Sugar is cheap
Fuel oil is not so cheap, and oil suitable for human consumption is
even less so.

The processing of edible oil from standard food crops is likely a lot
less efficient than production of oil from algae. Plants don't store
all their energy as oil. It takes energy to convert into oil from the
glucose that is produced during photosynthesis.
Posted by atmx2000 (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Please please please, someone direct me to suppliers of rack mount plastic bags for algae growth to produce oil for bio-diesel? Why is this so hard to find?
Posted by birddogcnet (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
It is my understanding that the "sugar fuel" is basically any organic waste - therefore the feedstock is not only plentiful but exptemely variable as well. I would expect that no actual sugar is used and no crops planted as feedstock - waste products only. Yes, any waste.
Posted by ronalda4 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.