The Best Renewable Energy Source: Innovation in Action Part 2: GreenFuel – A Love Affair With Algae

Algae bioreactor at APS Radhawk power plantContinuing where we left off from my post earlier this month with our exploration of Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn’s book Earth: the Sequel – The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming.

The book is about the the drive toward a new energy economy and the companies the are helping to clear the path. Companies like GreenFuel Technologies, founded in 2001 as the brainchild of Dr. Issac Berzin, a chemical engineer with a passion for algae.

Berzin first discovered the wonders of algae while working on a postdoctoral degree at MIT doing research growing algae in a small bioreactor for the International Space Station.

His work in the lab, prompted by a chance visit from a Russian immigrant who made a fortune in newly privitized Russian oil companies, got him to thinking what other uses algae could serve here on earth. All that led to the ultimate question for Berzin:

“Why expensively sequester CO2 when it can be profitably recycled?”

Go Forth and Multiply

Algae loves carbon dioxide. In fact, they don’t have much else to do but eat CO2 and divide. Berzin couldn’t help but notice this deceptively simple fact, so with the help of $2 million dollars in seed money from his new Russian friend, GreenFuel Technologies was born.

Berzin first tested his ideas in 2004 on MIT’s rooftop 20–megawatt cogeneration plant consisting of nine foot high triangles of clear pipe filled with an algae soup. Flue gases from the power plant were bubbled through the mixture, all to great initial success. 82% of of the CO2 was removed on sunny days, and 50% on cloudy days. In 2005 Berzin teamed up with Arizona Public Service at their Redhawk Plant, building its first Emissions-to-Biofuel bioreactor.

Not all algae is created equal, so one of GreenFuel’s main challenges is to find the right algae. Most of the company’s patents are for species selection and adaptation. The adaptation process allows researchers to gradually shift the organism to match the living conditions the algae will encounter – in effect growing a “super-algae” that flourishes and multiplies even faster than your typical pond scum.

The partnership’s first project paid off, winning GreenFuel and APS the Emissions Energy Project of the Year award at the 8th annual Platts Global Energy Awards in 2006, thereby proving the concept of using waste gas to grow algae for use as a biofuel. APS uses the fuel produced from algae to power several of their company vehicles.

Success doesn’t come without challenges and setbacks; at the Redhawk plant algae grew so fast it began to choke off light and nutrients – essentially a form of algae suicide. Like the algae, the company itself may have grown too fast. In the wake of the technical problems, a new CEO stepped in from lead investor Polaris Venture Partners, shut down the greenhouse at Redhawk, and cut the staff in half. Then there is the challenge of scaling up the technology profitably. Recycling a significant proportion of coal-fired stack gas would require bioreactors covering hundreds or perhaps thousands of acres.

But these are technical hurdles that many believe can be overcome – Algae holds much promise as a carbon eater and a biofuel. It can be grown in arid climates using waste or polluted water and since it grows so fast each acre of algae produces more energy than from other biofuels. Nor is algae a food crop. Worldwatch’s Lester Brown estimates that the amount of corn needed to produce enough ethanol to fill the 25 gallon tank of your typical Hummer could feed one adult for a year.

A 2004 analysis done at the University of New Hampshire posits that all the transportation fuels in the United States could be supplied on less than 30 million acres of land using algae as a biofuel, or about 3% of the land now devoted to farming crops and grazing animals.

On May 14th, GreenFuel announced (pdf) the closing of a $13.9 million venture capital round led by Access Private Equity, Draper, Fisher Juestson, and Polars Venture Partners for development and scaling pojects.

It’s unlikely there will be 30 million acres of algae farms and bioreactors supplying the country’s transportation fuels anytime soon, if ever. But, since the best carbon sequestration technology is leaving it in the ground in the first place, the question remains:Why expensively sequester CO2 when it can be profitably recycled? 

GreenFuel isn’t afraid to answer that question.  Waste not want not.

Photo courtesy of the EnergyBlog

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications.