By Jonathan Williams
During this past summer, the world has seen multiple advances in the alternative energy field, particularly with algae biofuels. A week hasn’t gone by where I didn’t receive several press releases in my inbox highlighting the latest advances by one of the many algae companies out there.
However, while press releases look and sound good, nothing highlights the advances of a company, if not the entire field, than the announcement of a multi-million dollar partnership with a larger, well-known, and respected entity.
During this summer we saw just that, with multiple algae companies announcing their partnerships with larger corporations or entities.
To give you a brief overview on these partnerships, first came Algenol with their partnership with Dow Chemical researching algae as an ethanol fuel source. Next came Seambiotic with their announcement that they will be partnering with NASA to develop a jet fuel from algae. Most recently, and probably most importantly, was Exxon Mobil’s $600 million partnership with Synthetic Genomics to conduct extensive research on algae biofuels.
Without going too much into detail about any one partnership and instead looking at the larger trend, it would seem like there has been a distinct shift in the market where algae is finally being viewed as an extremely viable and lucrative source of fuel. With Exxon Mobil pledging $600 million towards algae research in their partnership with Synthetic Genomics, one has to wonder whether or not this may be an eminent turning point for the future of algae.
However, while I have my own opinions on what this means for the blossoming algae industry, I have decided to hold back and instead publish some quotes from various leaders in the algae field.
Here is the question I asked several algae industry leaders concerning these recent partnerships:
“How do you feel the recent partnerships of algae companies with larger organizations will affect the algae field as a whole and the overall energy market?”
The following is a compilation of several answers in their entirety to the above question.
The first reply comes from Riggs Eckelberry, the CEO of OriginOil .
“We have seen our own partnership activity increase tremendously lately. The Exxon Mobil announcement was a big factor, but DOE also has a very important new program that is bringing us together with larger organizations.
To us, this means that the algae sector is finally beginning to engage its true potential. We are exiting the pioneer phase and getting into real commercialization. The field of algae companies is about to experience a dotcom-like expansion that will last for the next five years at least. It will of course contract, but in the process we will have built an industry.
Large companies are coming around to the realization that we could have a real competitor to petroleum here. Do the math, and you want to be where the action is, because competing with petroleum to any degree will unleash massive positive consequences.”
The next reply comes from Mr. Noam Menczel, Director of Investor’s Relations & Business Development at the Israel-based algae firm Seambiotic .
“The recent spate of partnerships between the leading algae companies and industrial heavyweights is most heartening as it validates the progress that is being made in the field algae biofuels. Companies like Seambiotic are now moving from research to pilot opportunities and that is what is bringing in the big guns.”
The following answer comes from Barrie Leay, the Chairman of New Zealand-based Aquaflow .
“The existing fossil derived liquid fuel market is very large with trillions of dollars invested over the past 100 years. It is therefore logical that big investors will have to enter the biofuel industry sooner or later, as declining oil reserves, ‘peak oil’, global warming, and steadily escalating prices, will inevitably drive many others players to enter this new and exciting industry, particularly now that we have demonstrated empirically that biofuels from algae can now be produced at scale.
Aquaflow have spent four good years discovering how to harvest and convert tons of microalgae per day to biocrude; And then to biodiesel, biopetrol and biojet fuel, all into totally ‘fungible’ drop in fuels, and all of which is on the record.
There are no short cuts for big companies, they too will have to ascend the learning curve themselves, or with the very few players who have acquired the experience, knowledge and skills to turn microalgae into biofuels. Very many millions were spent unsuccessfully over recent decades trying to crack this ‘Gordian knot’. The important breakthroughs have only been made very recently to demonstrate that it is possible, practical and economic.”
This last reply comes from Mark Edwards, author of the award winning book “Green Algae Strategy.”
“The algal industry needs inertia and these partnership[s]create buzz, energy and will move the industry forward. Activity is good and the PR generated is great for the industry.
The downside remains that the large companies plan to control the IP for basic algal cultivation and production which will restrict access and engagement from the larger community. Economists, e.g. Joe Bane and others, have documented repeatedly that innovation comes not from the large companies but the individuals and small companies at the edges of industry, e.g. steel, communications, computers and food. Monsanto and two other large firms already own 90% of the transgenic seeds that provide for our food supply. Each of these large firms is stacking up IP in hope that they can control access. We need public funded R&D and we need open source technologies to ignite the algal industry for food, fuels, pollution solutions and novel solutions.”
As you can see from the above quotes, the opinions on this issue are very diverse. However, most view these partnerships as positive with Edwards offering a more cautionary word or two as well. Overall, I agree with the consensus that these partnerships will help bring the necessary funds, attention and legitimacy to this fairly young industry. With these three needs satisfied, algae fuels should be set on a path to become a very competitive fuel.
By Jonathan Williams, appearing courtesy of Celsias.