Sustainable America Blog

Rethinking Algae: Beyond Biofuels

algae

Sustainable America is continually seeking new technologies and businesses that might improve the sustainability of our nation’s food and fuel systems. We get to talk to interesting entrepreneurs in the process – people whose aspirations often revolve around solving really big problems. So it’s no surprise that they have big thoughts about the future of sustainability. We had the opportunity recently to spend time with Brad Bartilson, founder and CEO of Photon8, a company that has developed a number of valuable products from a sustainable algae-based process. While Photon8 produces algae-based biofuels as part of its process, Brad has a much broader vision of the future for algae – namely in increasing the resiliency and sustainability of our food system.

Sustainable America: Brad, Photon8 produces biofuels from algae, which many people are familiar with. But Photon8 also produces omega-3 fatty acids and solid protein suitable for fish feed in large-scale aquaculture operations. Tell us more about that, and why you think the biofuels have gotten all of the popular interest so far.

Brad Bartilson: All aspiring biofuels producers that are growing something to make the fuel, whether it’s algae or crops of some sort, are most often targeting lipids, which can be refined into a number of things. In our case, we make omega-3s and biofuels from the lipid portion of the biomass, and fish feed (carbohydrates and proteins) from the remainder. The omega-3s are our highest-margin product because they are increasingly in demand for nutritional supplements. The solid shells of the algae that are left over after we extract the lipids are really great for fish to eat, and there is already an established market for those products.

To answer your second question, I think biofuels tend to get all of the press and popular fascination for a couple of reasons – first, Americans drive a lot, and if you claim to be able to replace gasoline with something made from nature, people will be really curious. Second – and this is not great for our developing industry — there have been a lot of high-profile failures. Lots of money spent on R&D and not that much in the way of profitable success stories.

Sustainable America: What is different about Photon8 that prevents the R&D burn, and leads to success?

BB: Well, let’s start with where some other operations have failed, namely because their capital costs were too high. Many went off in search of creating the perfect super algae in a lab via genetics – which is expensive may not even be possible. The idea was that to be profitable, the volume of lipids produced by a single algae had to be higher than nature allows. And then, the infrastructure of having vast open concrete-lined ponds, which are actually too deep for optimal algae growth and are easily contaminated, is also expensive. Too expensive, in fact, to become very profitable.

Our process was designed from the beginning to be capital efficient. It turns out that nature is pretty good at making algae, so much so that we would rather use what’s naturally available and select the best mutations of what’s already out there, which is cheaper. In that sense, it’s not the algae that went wrong in previous algae ventures, it was the cost structure around it. Our science around algae is robust and our team is top notch, but we aren’t going to spend our whole budget on developing a super algae.

We use channels of algae broth that are circulated through enclosed thin plastic tubes placed on a lightly-graded the field. The algae are grown in seawater, so there is no concern about drawing down on local fresh water supplies, and we harvest algae daily. It’s pretty simple, but elegant!

SA: Let’s circle back to fish. I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear your thoughts about the future of fish.

BB: Fish are the major source of animal protein for most people on the planet, but oceanic fisheries stocks are under pressure. So, large aquaculture operations – farm-raised fish – are really important now. But feeding those fish has become a quandary. The most logical source of food for farmed fish, up until now, has been other fish, just like they would eat in the wild. So we have a situation where the pressure on wild fisheries is exacerbated because we’re catching those fish, and grinding them up to feed farmed fish, in some cases. Which is really counter-productive and sad. Secondly, omega-3s are part of what makes fish healthy for us to eat. In nature, fish get their omega-3s up the food chain, from algae. When we grow fish in ponds, omega-3s are missing, meaning a less healthy fish to eat. Photon8’s fish meal would ensure these fish have healthy omega-3s. Algae-based fish-feed proteins like the ones we create are a great and really sustainable way to feed farmed fish. We would love to be part of the solution to easing the pressure on fisheries.

SA: OK, so give me the big picture vision: Where do you see the future of algae, and how does it fit into a more sustainable America?

BB: I really do see algae as the farm of the future, producing both food and energy. Algae’s basic constituents of protein, fats (lipids) and carbohydrates can be used to create or supplant constituents in many of today’s human food products, such as bread and baked goods, sushi, milk, sour cream, chocolate, cheese, protein shakes, mayonnaise, healthcare and cosmetic products. Really, this is farming without tractors. Algae produce biomass at rates up to 200 times that of terrestrial crops. Today it takes 7.3 calories of energy inputs to make 1 calorie of food energy. With algae, we can make that equation positive. We could also put corn ethanol and the practice of using food to create fuel in our rearview mirror, since fuels produced from algae can be 20 times more efficient in energy return than corn-based ethanol. We can do this by using algae, sunlight, seawater, and CO2. If we are talking about Photon8 specifically, if we can get the funding necessary to scale up, in five years of phased expansions, a single Photon8 farm will produce 50 million gallons a year of fuels and create 100 direct new jobs in a rural host community. I think that’s a pretty sustainable resource for the future.

SA: That’s absolutely a great sustainability story, and we love your vision.

Photon8 is based in Corpus Christie, Texas, and has an operational demonstration plant that is successfully producing algae-based products. Company is expanding, with sales agreements in place and a partnership with a major research university. Brad Bartilson can be reached at bartilson@photon8.com.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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