I have written several articles over the past couple of years that argued that there is a low probability that any of the would-be algal biodiesel manufacturers are going to make it. These essays included:
In both essays, I mentioned GreenFuel Technologies, which arose out of research done at MIT, and was the highest-profile company (and very well-funded) working on algal biodiesel. As far back as two years ago I put up a guest post by John Benemann who seriously questioned what GreenFuel was claiming:
Like CWT before them, GreenFuel could also serve as a poster child for hype gone amok. They were winning awards for innovation and had gushing articles appear in the mainstream media – but some of us recognized that they were stretching the truth.
Of course one of the first to call attention to GreenFuel was Krassen Dimitrov, whose analysis pointed out that their claims violated various laws of thermodynamics. Ironically, a poster dropped by to call Dimitrov a quack based on his analysis of GreenFuel, which I often summarize this way: Based on first principles of solar insolation falling on a square meter of land, the maximum algal biodiesel yield you could expect to get from organisms that utilize photosynthesis is around 1 gallon/square meter/yr. Not only do photobioreactors cost over $100/square meter (so you are paying $100 capital to produce 1 gallon per year), but GreenFuel was claiming that they could get 11 gallons/square meter/yr.
Well, the laws of thermodynamics have now caught up with them:
The Harvard-MIT algae company winds down after spending millions and experiencing delays, technical difficulties.
GreenFuel Technologies, one of the earliest, best funded and most publicized algae companies, is shutting its doors, a victim of the credit crunch.
“We are closing doors. We are a victim of the economy,” said Duncan McIntyre at Polaris Venture Partners, which invested in Greenfuel.
I imagine we are going to be hearing “victim of the economy” every time one of these hypesters runs out of money. It is the convenient excuse. The rest of the article gets closer to the heart of the matter – and highlights many of the issues raised by “the quack” Dimitrov:
The company has also been chronically saddled with delays and technical problems. The company’s plan was to pump carbon dioxide from smokestacks into bioreactors – i.e., sealed plastic bags filled with algae and water. The algae would grow fat on the carbon dioxide and later be harvested by GreenFuel to be turned into oil for biodiesel. Protein and other matter from the algae would also be sold to pet food manufacturers.
Getting the whole thing to run smoothly, though, was tougher than expected. GreenFuel could grow algae. The problem was controlling it. In 2007, a project to grow algae in an Arizona greenhouse went awry when the algae grew faster than they could be harvested and died off. The company also found its system would cost more than twice its target.
So, Krassen has the last laugh, and investors would have been wise to heed the various warnings. Don’t feel bad, Krassen, as I have had posters who said I didn’t know what I was talking about when I suggested that Bill Gates’ investment in Pacific Ethanol was going to turn out badly, which of course it did. If you are like me you don’t enjoy seeing anyone fail, but you do like knowing that you got it right.
GreenFuel was the first high profile algal concern to go under, but they won’t be the last. I predict that few of them will be standing in just a few short years. Growing algae is trivial and can be done in water, and there is the allure. Turning into biodiesel is not technically very difficult. Doing it all economically is next to impossible. I have had one very prominent algae expert tell me that it will be at least 15 years before there are serious prospects for commercial viability – and that will require multiple large technical breakthroughs.
Footnote: Incidentally, I don’t see that gathering and extracting the oil will ever be cost effective. But I can see three possibilities of algal strategies that might work. If algae could be designed to weep oil, which could then phase out of water, that might be a workable approach. The separation of algae from water, and then of oil from algae are very energy intensive steps, and if you could just skim oil you would knock out a lot of the costs.
I also haven’t written off the fermentation approaches of companies like Solazyme. Think of the Brazilian ethanol model, only with algae fermenting longer chain hydrocarbons from the sugars.
One final possibility would be if the oil is merely a by-product from either a system that has another primary function (i.e., sewage treatment) or has a primary product that is of much greater value (like a pharmaceutical). In either of those approaches, the capital and operating costs don’t have to be solely supported by the algal fuel.