The algae miracle

Some types can provide plenty of healthy food and clean fuel. Other types can be used to produce medicine or clean up the environment. Just how far can the promise of algae get us?

rotten smell greeted Sid Harwood and Shannon Helzer as they opened the door to the algae lab at Boone High School last fall. The science teachers, engineers by training, covered their mouths and blanched. Overnight, brown sludge had formed inside the cobbled-together network of plastic tubes at the center of the small room. Their algae had died, and the remains were rapidly putrefying.

The science teachers were in charge of a group of nine Pennsylvania high school students attempting to produce biodiesel using algae as a base. Things had been going surprisingly well so far: the students fashioned photobioreactors—enclosed tubes suspended near powerful grow lights—from materials they’d purchased at local hardware and pet stores. They gathered algae from a nearby pond, and it had been thriving.

The notion that high schoolers could make fuel from pond scum seemed to fly in the face of a world energy sector predicated on the supremacy of a handful of major suppliers, but the Green Team was intent on opening eyes. The Boone High grounds crew had already agreed to use any biofuel the kids produced in its tractors, and early successes only bolstered the students’ confidence. Now they were back to square one, and they were learning that the road to innovation is paved with hardship. Fortunately, the setback was temporary; with a little help, the Green Team would clear the hurdle and be back on its way to producing clean, sustainable biofuel.

Using algae to replace fossil fuels may seem pie-in-the-sky, but it’s not. In fact, it would be plain wrong to underestimate the power of algae. Lately, researchers are finding that algae may play a vital role in solving some of the 21st century’s most daunting challenges. “Algae are extremely productive,” says Mark Hildebrand, research professor in the Marine Biology Research Division of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California–San Diego. “They’re really efficient at converting sunlight and carbon into something useful, and we can take advantage of that to make all kinds of useful and necessary products.” Algae are fast-growing organisms that require few inputs and can be produced year-round. Many strains are nutrient- and lipid-rich, making them ideal for food and fuel, and unlike terrestrial crops like corn and soy, they can be produced without arable land in places where clean water is in short supply. Several types of algae are now being investigated for use in medicines, fuel, plastics, food and environmental remediation techniques.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Unlocking algae’s hidden potential does not ensure that the miracle organisms will be incorporated into the industrial supply chain anytime soon. Standing in the way is widespread consumer skepticism and a hot-cold investment culture that veers and swerves with world energy markets. It will be up to entrepreneurs, scientists and ambitious amateurs to get us over the hump. The good news is that they’re already starting. Here’s how.

Algae you can eat

In 1976, American entrepreneur Larry Switzer approached the Nigerian government with a radical idea: what if the
African nation used oil revenue to plant algae farms in order to feed its booming urban population? Switzer was obsessed with a specific strain of algae called spirulina, which gets its name from the spiral shape of its filaments. Spirulina can be grown in shallow pools of warm, brackish water on land unsuitable for other agriculture. Because it is grown in dense beds and can double its mass every two to five days, an algae farm can yield 20 times more protein than soybeans and 400 times more than beef raised on the same amount of land. If you could ramp up algae production in a cost-effective way, you could wipe out hunger.

The only problem was that it had never been tried before. A handful of societies have used wild-grown spirulina as a food staple dating back 7,000 years—the Aztecs ate it, and so do villagers living on the rapidly disappearing Lake Chad, in central Africa—but no one had actually farmed it. With no evidence that the scheme would work, the Nigerian government balked. Switzer needed proof that his idea was viable, so in 1977, with help from a few fellow pioneers, he began building pilot farms on a sunny swath of dry land in California’s Imperial Valley.

Algae entrepreneurs tend to share a democratic bent—no surprise, considering that their common objective is to unleash the power of one of the world’s most prolific organisms. Robert Henrikson was one of the adventurous souls who joined Switzer early on. Henrikson had studied revolutionary politics at Brown but had grown disaffected with what he saw as the corrupting nature of power. “Groups of angry young men taking over from older corrupt men,” he recalls thinking, “only to become old and corrupt themselves.” When he graduated, Henrikson became a student of consciousness and spirituality, but he always believed that innovation was the biggest driver of change in a market-based economy.

When Henrikson heard Switzer talk about algae, he knew he’d found his innovator and his innovation. But starting a spirulina farm wouldn’t be easy. “We saw early on that it would take quite a bit of money to grow spirulina,” explains Henrikson, whose graying, centrally parted hair and preference for brightly patterned button-ups make him seem like a happy castoff from a freer time. “It’s a bigger capital investment than just planting vegetables.”

Algae farms rely on special technology. Outdoors, algae are grown using raceway ponds, loops of shallow water agitated by mechanized paddles. Excavating the ponds and installing the agitating equipment is a big up-front cost, and with an outdoor setup there are risks of contamination. Undesirable local algae will quickly invade a sun-soaked pool of water if given the chance. Spirulina is an extremophile, meaning it thrives in harsh environments and can be grown in alkaline or high-pH water that kills other strains, but monitoring and maintaining those levels adds another layer of cost.

Spirulina is 60 to 70 percent protein and is high in essential amino acids, B12, beta-carotene, antioxidants, and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, making it a veritable superfood. But farmed food is a generally cheap commodity, particularly since the 1960s and ’70s when inexpensive chemical fertilizers increased agricultural production worldwide. Switzer and Henrikson quickly saw that they couldn’t compete directly with a crop like soy until their infrastructure costs fell. Instead, they decided to target the emerging health food market.

While the health benefits of many so-called nutraceuticals are hotly debated, animal studies suggest that spirulina does provide immune support by increasing the production of infection-fighting proteins and antibodies. It can be dried and ground into a flavorless powder, making it an attractive alternative to strongly flavored wheat germ and maca as an additive in smoothies and healthy drinks. By 1980 Switzer and Henrikson had formed Earth Rise Farms, and by the 1990s their pilot ponds had transformed into what remains the largest spirulina farm in the world. The company’s success inspired competition; spirulina is now sold as a nutraceutical under dozens of brand names, and about 10,000 tons (dry weight) are grown every year around the world.

“Algae are between ten- and a hundredfold more productive than typical crops,” says Hildebrand. “The economics can definitely work to make algae a major source of feed for animals and fish and of food for humans.” Henrikson was happy with Earth Rise’s success, but he too continued to believe that algae could play an important role in the world food supply. “That’s the promise of algae,” Henrikson says. “It’s just so productive, and if you could begin to create that kind of abundance, then it becomes a game changer.” The cost of large-scale algae farming was bound to fall as new monitoring and harvesting technology came along. In the meantime, Henrikson decided to look at decentralized algae production. “What if people could set up their own microfarms where they live? You can have urban farms on city lots, rooftop gardens, greenhouses. Growing vegetables on a small scale will never really pay the rent, but spirulina can provide a real income stream, because it grows so quickly.”

Henrikson set up his first microfarm in Olympia, Washington, where he successfully grows and harvests algae nine months out of the year, far exceeding the growing season of any conventional crop. Earth Rise’s spirulina is grown in small ponds inside cheap modular greenhouses, and it can be harvested by hand with a microscreen. The resulting slurry can be pressed to the consistency of tofu. It has no taste and can be eaten raw, or it can be put in a dehydrator and extruded into noodles.

Henrikson is refining his methods and technology, and he offers consulting services to communities and gardeners looking to start farms. To get the word out, he launched the International Algae Competition in 2011, where one of the most popular categories showcases algae recipes from around the world. He’s judged recipes for spirulina tacos al pastor, Korean-style algae pancakes, aquamole spirulina dip, algae con queso, spirulina pesto pizza and algae-based sherbet.

A 2008 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization substantiates Henrikson’s belief in algae’s enormous potential. Among other findings, the report concludes that spirulina is highly nutritious and has no religious or cultural issues associated with consumption, that its production “occupies only a small environmental footprint, with considerable efficiencies in terms of water use, land occupation and energy consumption,” and that farming can be conducted at any scale, from home setups to large-scale commercial production.

With algae’s incredible nutritional bounty, it’s easy to be swayed by big talk of a world food system that revolves around algae farms. Henrikson is more pragmatic. “It’s not the answer, but it’s certainly part of the equation. We have an industrial food system that’s essential to feed the planet’s seven billion people. There’s excess, and there are things that need to change, and organic local growing can help us balance out the system, but it’s best to look at algae as a productive and beneficial addition to our food paradigm, and not a replacement.”

Even so, algae may one day account for a slice of the food-production pie, and in the short term algae-growing kits are being looked at as alternatives to the costly stopgap of food aid in cases of famine and natural disaster. As new technologies for algae cultivation bring costs down, you’re likely to see products made from spirulina migrate away from the health food aisle and into more quotidian corners of the grocery store. For that to happen, production costs have to fall. Today, the main innovative forces in algae cultivation, and the real drivers of cheaper algae technology, are algae biofuels.

Biofuels

Boone High School’s bid to produce biodiesel grew out of a research assignment that Mr. Harwood regularly gave to his physics students. Classes chose alternative energy technologies—solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, geothermal, biofuels—and produced exhaustive reports about the promise of each. Harwood repeated the assignment over several years, and he noticed that the research pointed to biofuels as the most immediately viable clean-energy alternative for transportation. Burning biofuels in a car or plane will release CO2 just like petroleum does, but biofuel crops also use CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, which can make them carbon neutral. Liquid biofuels can also be swapped into the existing liquid-fuel infrastructure, which is a tremendous advantage over alternative energy solutions like hydrogen and solar.

But not all biofuels are created equal—corn-based ethanol, for instance, has a low net energy balance, meaning you get slightly more energy by burning it than was used to produce it. The net energy balance of fuel made with sugarcane is about eight times better than that of corn ethanol, but growing enough sugarcane to substantively ease our dependence on fossil fuels would require vast amounts of arable land in tropical and subtropical regions, meaning less room for food crops and more deforestation. Harwood wondered whether any other crops were being looked at, and that’s when he hit upon what seemed like an odd alternative: algae.

In fact, algae shouldn’t seem like an odd source of fuel at all. Crude oil in the ground comes from fossilized algae, not from dinosaur bones, as many erroneously believe. Oily lipids account for as much as 60 percent of the mass of some strains, compared with just 2 percent for soy. With that high oil content, the land required to produce a sufficient quantity of algae to replace fossil fuels would be relatively small: 221,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Madagascar, could yield a sufficient quantity of biodiesel to replace crude diesel worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Australian senator Alan Eggleston pointed out that the arid and thinly populated Pilbara region, in the western part of his country, has a total area of 1,983,000 sunny square miles—enough algae-ready land to supply more than 800 percent of the world’s demand for diesel.

Spurred by the gas crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government took the lead in algae fuel research with the 1978 Aquatic Species Program. Over the next two decades, the program demonstrated that algae could be suitable for large-scale fuel production, but it also found that significant hurdles remain. As Switzer and Henrikson demonstrated with Earth Rise Farms, a pure strain of spirulina algae can be grown in an outdoor pond, because it has a unique tolerance for conditions of high alkalinity and extreme pH. But spirulina has a low lipid-to-mass ratio, making it poorly suited to fuel production. Without that unique resilience, strains with higher lipid-to-mass ratios are vulnerable to invasion from native strains.

The most common solution is to grow algae in photobioreactors—the clear tubes in the Boone High algae lab—but sophisticated pumps and plumbing are costly to scale. Because decades of refinements to technology and infrastructure have kept the costs of fossil crude low, a viable alternative has to be inexpensive, and algae-based biofuels aren’t there yet. When gas prices began to fall in the late 1980s and early ’90s, interest in biofuels started to wane. In 1996, with crude hovering at $20 per barrel, the government ended the Aquatic Species Program. It was an ominous foreshadowing of the fickle investment culture around biofuels.

“We need to demonstrate that we can produce competitively and at scale,” says Hildebrand, whose lab recently figured out how to increase lipid content in a strain of algae without adversely affecting growth, a breakthrough previously thought impossible. “Your research starts to gain a certain momentum, you demonstrate it works at lab scale, and so it’s very difficult when there’s a lack of funding to move forward.” Researchers like Hildebrand continue to build the science behind algae fuel, and private industry has taken up the banner in big ways in recent years. Companies like OriginOil and Sapphire Energy have been working to commercialize the production of green crude, which can be used in a conventional refinery to produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Sapphire’s New Mexico facility is producing 100 barrels of green crude per day, and ambitious estimates see prices falling to $95 per barrel by 2019. (As of this writing, fossil crude is $107 per barrel.) In the meantime, hydraulic fracturing is opening up new stores of cheap fossil fuels, and investors are once again losing interest in alternative energy markets.

“Economics are the driving interest, but that shouldn’t be the only consideration,” says Hildebrand. “There are environmental reasons to do this, and that’s why we also need to start talking about subsidies to bring down costs.” For algae-energy startups, the challenge now is to hang on until the next energy scare sends dollars flooding back into algae-fuel development. In the meantime, the companies are leveraging the technology they’ve developed to open new markets for algae products.

Medicine

By all accounts, the commercial algae revolution is long overdue. “It’s everywhere, in every birdbath, and so that familiarity breeds contempt,” posits Stephen Mayfield to explain why it’s taken so long to harness algae’s incredible abundance. Mayfield is the director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, a consortium of algae researchers from around the world, and he’s spent the past 20 years developing the techniques and bedrock research needed to understand what algae is capable of. One of the most promising applications of his research has come in the form of sophisticated drugs that cost a fraction of those currently on the market.

Molecular geneticists like Mayfield have traditionally worked on simple genetic systems to make sophisticated proteins, which can be used to make medicines and chemicals. Algae strains were usually overlooked in the early days of genetic manipulation, largely because the early genetic discoveries came from bacteria and yeast systems, so that’s where the research dollars flowed.

But a small band of scientists took algae very seriously. “We saw it as an opportunity,” Mayfield says. “We realized that someday we’d be able to beat every other system out there because our inputs are free. Our inputs are sunlight and CO2, and I don’t have to pay for those. It’s a good genetic system, so I spent most of my career figuring out the basic rules of gene expression in it.”

As genetic manipulation tools have become more refined, strains of algae have gained recognition for being flexible genetic platforms that can produce everything from powerful drugs to fine chemicals and lubricants. Dr. Mayfield’s lab at UCSD, where he is a professor of biotechnology, is currently developing a new generation of cancer drugs. Recombinant DNA-derived antibodies—so-called dual-domain drugs—are the most promising cancer treatments on the market, but also the most expensive.

The treatments are currently made by linking a toxin to humanized antibodies derived from Chinese hamster ovaries. The process of deriving the antibodies is complex and labor intensive, and the drugs can cost in excess of a hundred thousand dollars for a course of injections. Using algae instead of mammalian cells can bring costs down by as much as 90 percent, since it’s far less costly to grow genetically appropriate strains of algae than it is to modify hamsters. Mayfield expects to start clinical trials on his algae-derived dual-domain drugs in 2015.

His lab has also made promising strides toward a malaria vaccine using algae as a genetic base. That success is opening eyes all across the pharmaceutical research community, because of both the potential to reduce costs and the relative ease with which algae can be genetically manipulated.

Algae has long been touted as the miracle organism of the future, but its substantial promise remains unfulfilled. At Boone High, in Pennsylvania, at least, that future looks close at hand. Setback is a natural part of innovation. After the students’ algae died, Harwood and Helzer turned to a local university to figure out why. It turned out their bioreactor system didn’t contain enough reactive nitrogen, which is vital to plant growth. The fix was simple: monitor levels and add a bit of nitrogen fertilizer as necessary. Before long, the Green Team was back on its feet. There’s now a new crop of bright green algae thriving in the photobioreactors.

Earlier this year, the school won $25,000 in the Lexus Eco Challenge. The money will help the ambitious youngsters continue their project next year, when they plan to harvest their algae and convert the pressed oil into biofuel. If a bunch of high school kids can pull it off successfully, investors would be wise to give algae applications—from food and biofuel to sophisticated new medicines—
another look.

Solution News Source

The algae miracle

Some types can provide plenty of healthy food and clean fuel. Other types can be used to produce medicine or clean up the environment. Just how far can the promise of algae get us?

rotten smell greeted Sid Harwood and Shannon Helzer as they opened the door to the algae lab at Boone High School last fall. The science teachers, engineers by training, covered their mouths and blanched. Overnight, brown sludge had formed inside the cobbled-together network of plastic tubes at the center of the small room. Their algae had died, and the remains were rapidly putrefying.

The science teachers were in charge of a group of nine Pennsylvania high school students attempting to produce biodiesel using algae as a base. Things had been going surprisingly well so far: the students fashioned photobioreactors—enclosed tubes suspended near powerful grow lights—from materials they’d purchased at local hardware and pet stores. They gathered algae from a nearby pond, and it had been thriving.

The notion that high schoolers could make fuel from pond scum seemed to fly in the face of a world energy sector predicated on the supremacy of a handful of major suppliers, but the Green Team was intent on opening eyes. The Boone High grounds crew had already agreed to use any biofuel the kids produced in its tractors, and early successes only bolstered the students’ confidence. Now they were back to square one, and they were learning that the road to innovation is paved with hardship. Fortunately, the setback was temporary; with a little help, the Green Team would clear the hurdle and be back on its way to producing clean, sustainable biofuel.

Using algae to replace fossil fuels may seem pie-in-the-sky, but it’s not. In fact, it would be plain wrong to underestimate the power of algae. Lately, researchers are finding that algae may play a vital role in solving some of the 21st century’s most daunting challenges. “Algae are extremely productive,” says Mark Hildebrand, research professor in the Marine Biology Research Division of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California–San Diego. “They’re really efficient at converting sunlight and carbon into something useful, and we can take advantage of that to make all kinds of useful and necessary products.” Algae are fast-growing organisms that require few inputs and can be produced year-round. Many strains are nutrient- and lipid-rich, making them ideal for food and fuel, and unlike terrestrial crops like corn and soy, they can be produced without arable land in places where clean water is in short supply. Several types of algae are now being investigated for use in medicines, fuel, plastics, food and environmental remediation techniques.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Unlocking algae’s hidden potential does not ensure that the miracle organisms will be incorporated into the industrial supply chain anytime soon. Standing in the way is widespread consumer skepticism and a hot-cold investment culture that veers and swerves with world energy markets. It will be up to entrepreneurs, scientists and ambitious amateurs to get us over the hump. The good news is that they’re already starting. Here’s how.

Algae you can eat

In 1976, American entrepreneur Larry Switzer approached the Nigerian government with a radical idea: what if the
African nation used oil revenue to plant algae farms in order to feed its booming urban population? Switzer was obsessed with a specific strain of algae called spirulina, which gets its name from the spiral shape of its filaments. Spirulina can be grown in shallow pools of warm, brackish water on land unsuitable for other agriculture. Because it is grown in dense beds and can double its mass every two to five days, an algae farm can yield 20 times more protein than soybeans and 400 times more than beef raised on the same amount of land. If you could ramp up algae production in a cost-effective way, you could wipe out hunger.

The only problem was that it had never been tried before. A handful of societies have used wild-grown spirulina as a food staple dating back 7,000 years—the Aztecs ate it, and so do villagers living on the rapidly disappearing Lake Chad, in central Africa—but no one had actually farmed it. With no evidence that the scheme would work, the Nigerian government balked. Switzer needed proof that his idea was viable, so in 1977, with help from a few fellow pioneers, he began building pilot farms on a sunny swath of dry land in California’s Imperial Valley.

Algae entrepreneurs tend to share a democratic bent—no surprise, considering that their common objective is to unleash the power of one of the world’s most prolific organisms. Robert Henrikson was one of the adventurous souls who joined Switzer early on. Henrikson had studied revolutionary politics at Brown but had grown disaffected with what he saw as the corrupting nature of power. “Groups of angry young men taking over from older corrupt men,” he recalls thinking, “only to become old and corrupt themselves.” When he graduated, Henrikson became a student of consciousness and spirituality, but he always believed that innovation was the biggest driver of change in a market-based economy.

When Henrikson heard Switzer talk about algae, he knew he’d found his innovator and his innovation. But starting a spirulina farm wouldn’t be easy. “We saw early on that it would take quite a bit of money to grow spirulina,” explains Henrikson, whose graying, centrally parted hair and preference for brightly patterned button-ups make him seem like a happy castoff from a freer time. “It’s a bigger capital investment than just planting vegetables.”

Algae farms rely on special technology. Outdoors, algae are grown using raceway ponds, loops of shallow water agitated by mechanized paddles. Excavating the ponds and installing the agitating equipment is a big up-front cost, and with an outdoor setup there are risks of contamination. Undesirable local algae will quickly invade a sun-soaked pool of water if given the chance. Spirulina is an extremophile, meaning it thrives in harsh environments and can be grown in alkaline or high-pH water that kills other strains, but monitoring and maintaining those levels adds another layer of cost.

Spirulina is 60 to 70 percent protein and is high in essential amino acids, B12, beta-carotene, antioxidants, and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, making it a veritable superfood. But farmed food is a generally cheap commodity, particularly since the 1960s and ’70s when inexpensive chemical fertilizers increased agricultural production worldwide. Switzer and Henrikson quickly saw that they couldn’t compete directly with a crop like soy until their infrastructure costs fell. Instead, they decided to target the emerging health food market.

While the health benefits of many so-called nutraceuticals are hotly debated, animal studies suggest that spirulina does provide immune support by increasing the production of infection-fighting proteins and antibodies. It can be dried and ground into a flavorless powder, making it an attractive alternative to strongly flavored wheat germ and maca as an additive in smoothies and healthy drinks. By 1980 Switzer and Henrikson had formed Earth Rise Farms, and by the 1990s their pilot ponds had transformed into what remains the largest spirulina farm in the world. The company’s success inspired competition; spirulina is now sold as a nutraceutical under dozens of brand names, and about 10,000 tons (dry weight) are grown every year around the world.

“Algae are between ten- and a hundredfold more productive than typical crops,” says Hildebrand. “The economics can definitely work to make algae a major source of feed for animals and fish and of food for humans.” Henrikson was happy with Earth Rise’s success, but he too continued to believe that algae could play an important role in the world food supply. “That’s the promise of algae,” Henrikson says. “It’s just so productive, and if you could begin to create that kind of abundance, then it becomes a game changer.” The cost of large-scale algae farming was bound to fall as new monitoring and harvesting technology came along. In the meantime, Henrikson decided to look at decentralized algae production. “What if people could set up their own microfarms where they live? You can have urban farms on city lots, rooftop gardens, greenhouses. Growing vegetables on a small scale will never really pay the rent, but spirulina can provide a real income stream, because it grows so quickly.”

Henrikson set up his first microfarm in Olympia, Washington, where he successfully grows and harvests algae nine months out of the year, far exceeding the growing season of any conventional crop. Earth Rise’s spirulina is grown in small ponds inside cheap modular greenhouses, and it can be harvested by hand with a microscreen. The resulting slurry can be pressed to the consistency of tofu. It has no taste and can be eaten raw, or it can be put in a dehydrator and extruded into noodles.

Henrikson is refining his methods and technology, and he offers consulting services to communities and gardeners looking to start farms. To get the word out, he launched the International Algae Competition in 2011, where one of the most popular categories showcases algae recipes from around the world. He’s judged recipes for spirulina tacos al pastor, Korean-style algae pancakes, aquamole spirulina dip, algae con queso, spirulina pesto pizza and algae-based sherbet.

A 2008 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization substantiates Henrikson’s belief in algae’s enormous potential. Among other findings, the report concludes that spirulina is highly nutritious and has no religious or cultural issues associated with consumption, that its production “occupies only a small environmental footprint, with considerable efficiencies in terms of water use, land occupation and energy consumption,” and that farming can be conducted at any scale, from home setups to large-scale commercial production.

With algae’s incredible nutritional bounty, it’s easy to be swayed by big talk of a world food system that revolves around algae farms. Henrikson is more pragmatic. “It’s not the answer, but it’s certainly part of the equation. We have an industrial food system that’s essential to feed the planet’s seven billion people. There’s excess, and there are things that need to change, and organic local growing can help us balance out the system, but it’s best to look at algae as a productive and beneficial addition to our food paradigm, and not a replacement.”

Even so, algae may one day account for a slice of the food-production pie, and in the short term algae-growing kits are being looked at as alternatives to the costly stopgap of food aid in cases of famine and natural disaster. As new technologies for algae cultivation bring costs down, you’re likely to see products made from spirulina migrate away from the health food aisle and into more quotidian corners of the grocery store. For that to happen, production costs have to fall. Today, the main innovative forces in algae cultivation, and the real drivers of cheaper algae technology, are algae biofuels.

Biofuels

Boone High School’s bid to produce biodiesel grew out of a research assignment that Mr. Harwood regularly gave to his physics students. Classes chose alternative energy technologies—solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, geothermal, biofuels—and produced exhaustive reports about the promise of each. Harwood repeated the assignment over several years, and he noticed that the research pointed to biofuels as the most immediately viable clean-energy alternative for transportation. Burning biofuels in a car or plane will release CO2 just like petroleum does, but biofuel crops also use CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, which can make them carbon neutral. Liquid biofuels can also be swapped into the existing liquid-fuel infrastructure, which is a tremendous advantage over alternative energy solutions like hydrogen and solar.

But not all biofuels are created equal—corn-based ethanol, for instance, has a low net energy balance, meaning you get slightly more energy by burning it than was used to produce it. The net energy balance of fuel made with sugarcane is about eight times better than that of corn ethanol, but growing enough sugarcane to substantively ease our dependence on fossil fuels would require vast amounts of arable land in tropical and subtropical regions, meaning less room for food crops and more deforestation. Harwood wondered whether any other crops were being looked at, and that’s when he hit upon what seemed like an odd alternative: algae.

In fact, algae shouldn’t seem like an odd source of fuel at all. Crude oil in the ground comes from fossilized algae, not from dinosaur bones, as many erroneously believe. Oily lipids account for as much as 60 percent of the mass of some strains, compared with just 2 percent for soy. With that high oil content, the land required to produce a sufficient quantity of algae to replace fossil fuels would be relatively small: 221,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Madagascar, could yield a sufficient quantity of biodiesel to replace crude diesel worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Australian senator Alan Eggleston pointed out that the arid and thinly populated Pilbara region, in the western part of his country, has a total area of 1,983,000 sunny square miles—enough algae-ready land to supply more than 800 percent of the world’s demand for diesel.

Spurred by the gas crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government took the lead in algae fuel research with the 1978 Aquatic Species Program. Over the next two decades, the program demonstrated that algae could be suitable for large-scale fuel production, but it also found that significant hurdles remain. As Switzer and Henrikson demonstrated with Earth Rise Farms, a pure strain of spirulina algae can be grown in an outdoor pond, because it has a unique tolerance for conditions of high alkalinity and extreme pH. But spirulina has a low lipid-to-mass ratio, making it poorly suited to fuel production. Without that unique resilience, strains with higher lipid-to-mass ratios are vulnerable to invasion from native strains.

The most common solution is to grow algae in photobioreactors—the clear tubes in the Boone High algae lab—but sophisticated pumps and plumbing are costly to scale. Because decades of refinements to technology and infrastructure have kept the costs of fossil crude low, a viable alternative has to be inexpensive, and algae-based biofuels aren’t there yet. When gas prices began to fall in the late 1980s and early ’90s, interest in biofuels started to wane. In 1996, with crude hovering at $20 per barrel, the government ended the Aquatic Species Program. It was an ominous foreshadowing of the fickle investment culture around biofuels.

“We need to demonstrate that we can produce competitively and at scale,” says Hildebrand, whose lab recently figured out how to increase lipid content in a strain of algae without adversely affecting growth, a breakthrough previously thought impossible. “Your research starts to gain a certain momentum, you demonstrate it works at lab scale, and so it’s very difficult when there’s a lack of funding to move forward.” Researchers like Hildebrand continue to build the science behind algae fuel, and private industry has taken up the banner in big ways in recent years. Companies like OriginOil and Sapphire Energy have been working to commercialize the production of green crude, which can be used in a conventional refinery to produce gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Sapphire’s New Mexico facility is producing 100 barrels of green crude per day, and ambitious estimates see prices falling to $95 per barrel by 2019. (As of this writing, fossil crude is $107 per barrel.) In the meantime, hydraulic fracturing is opening up new stores of cheap fossil fuels, and investors are once again losing interest in alternative energy markets.

“Economics are the driving interest, but that shouldn’t be the only consideration,” says Hildebrand. “There are environmental reasons to do this, and that’s why we also need to start talking about subsidies to bring down costs.” For algae-energy startups, the challenge now is to hang on until the next energy scare sends dollars flooding back into algae-fuel development. In the meantime, the companies are leveraging the technology they’ve developed to open new markets for algae products.

Medicine

By all accounts, the commercial algae revolution is long overdue. “It’s everywhere, in every birdbath, and so that familiarity breeds contempt,” posits Stephen Mayfield to explain why it’s taken so long to harness algae’s incredible abundance. Mayfield is the director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, a consortium of algae researchers from around the world, and he’s spent the past 20 years developing the techniques and bedrock research needed to understand what algae is capable of. One of the most promising applications of his research has come in the form of sophisticated drugs that cost a fraction of those currently on the market.

Molecular geneticists like Mayfield have traditionally worked on simple genetic systems to make sophisticated proteins, which can be used to make medicines and chemicals. Algae strains were usually overlooked in the early days of genetic manipulation, largely because the early genetic discoveries came from bacteria and yeast systems, so that’s where the research dollars flowed.

But a small band of scientists took algae very seriously. “We saw it as an opportunity,” Mayfield says. “We realized that someday we’d be able to beat every other system out there because our inputs are free. Our inputs are sunlight and CO2, and I don’t have to pay for those. It’s a good genetic system, so I spent most of my career figuring out the basic rules of gene expression in it.”

As genetic manipulation tools have become more refined, strains of algae have gained recognition for being flexible genetic platforms that can produce everything from powerful drugs to fine chemicals and lubricants. Dr. Mayfield’s lab at UCSD, where he is a professor of biotechnology, is currently developing a new generation of cancer drugs. Recombinant DNA-derived antibodies—so-called dual-domain drugs—are the most promising cancer treatments on the market, but also the most expensive.

The treatments are currently made by linking a toxin to humanized antibodies derived from Chinese hamster ovaries. The process of deriving the antibodies is complex and labor intensive, and the drugs can cost in excess of a hundred thousand dollars for a course of injections. Using algae instead of mammalian cells can bring costs down by as much as 90 percent, since it’s far less costly to grow genetically appropriate strains of algae than it is to modify hamsters. Mayfield expects to start clinical trials on his algae-derived dual-domain drugs in 2015.

His lab has also made promising strides toward a malaria vaccine using algae as a genetic base. That success is opening eyes all across the pharmaceutical research community, because of both the potential to reduce costs and the relative ease with which algae can be genetically manipulated.

Algae has long been touted as the miracle organism of the future, but its substantial promise remains unfulfilled. At Boone High, in Pennsylvania, at least, that future looks close at hand. Setback is a natural part of innovation. After the students’ algae died, Harwood and Helzer turned to a local university to figure out why. It turned out their bioreactor system didn’t contain enough reactive nitrogen, which is vital to plant growth. The fix was simple: monitor levels and add a bit of nitrogen fertilizer as necessary. Before long, the Green Team was back on its feet. There’s now a new crop of bright green algae thriving in the photobioreactors.

Earlier this year, the school won $25,000 in the Lexus Eco Challenge. The money will help the ambitious youngsters continue their project next year, when they plan to harvest their algae and convert the pressed oil into biofuel. If a bunch of high school kids can pull it off successfully, investors would be wise to give algae applications—from food and biofuel to sophisticated new medicines—
another look.

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