28 August 2012

Major changes in the Algae Production Industry

Raceway ponds were never meant to be used for industrial algae production

When the Department of Energy initiated the Aquatic Species Program years ago, there was no other choice. Raceway ponds were relatively inexpensive to build, land was plentiful, and raceway ponds could produce enough algae to conduct the research that was needed at that time. Two of the biggest problems that were encountered were contamination and low productivity. Many years later, those problem have still not been resolved, and many raceway pond algae growers, equipment providers and construction companies that built raceway ponds over the years have not only have confirmed these problems but have ended up building and patenting closed-loop algae growing systems. The vast majority have moved away from standard raceway ponds and into commercial PBR’s and industrial growing systems that eliminate most of the contamination problems and can generate much larger volumes.

The DOE’s Aquatic Species Program has completely failed in any commercialization efforts. For years, they focused their research on algae raceway ponds and not on any of the more advanced growing, harvesting and extraction systems. The claim that it was less expensive to build ponds is valid, but, as they say, you get what you pay for, and the researchers were content with the limited quantities they were growing – it boosted their argument that more research was needed. The DoE never considered alternate algae growing systems – its researchers spent time and money investigating alternate energy sources, most of which require feedstock that deplete our food supply. NAA believes that no one at the Aquatic Species Program ever thought of algae as an industry.

The National Algae Association is the first non-profit algae production trade association in the US. We have focused on identifying good algae technologies that work and can scale in a commercial environment as well as helping to lower costs of algae production equipment. The costs of materials for commercial closed-loop algae growing systems have come down substantially over the last 5 years. Many new algae companies are moving away from algae raceway ponds and are interested in closed-loop systems. Raceway ponds developed for research will never be used in a commercial environment.

NAA has filled a gap that the DoE has not – focusing on lowering the CAPEX and increasing productivity.We have encouraged the creation of new designs through open and honest collaboration.We have been successful in negotiating better pricing of materials. Most importantly, we have been able to test turnkey commercial growing, harvesting and extraction systems at the NAA Test Center.

Times are changing.Today, NAA sees a huge change in how algae will be produced going forward. Algae raceway ponds will never be used for industrial algae production. Even though we have had great success testing commercial closed-loop photobioreactors over the last 5 years, we believe the future will bring massive algae growing systems similar to the systems being tested at the Testing Center. Preliminary commercial production testing is very encouraging for addressing growth rates issues, energy inputs and eliminating contamination issues.

NAA is very appreciative for all the commercial-scale equipment donations and materials it has received and continues to receive to help make the US a leader in commercial algae production.

Source: National Algae Association, press release, 2012-08-28.

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