Whenever we talk about oil, people immediately think about the black stuff that comes out of the ground, is put into barrels, and turned into gasoline and other fuels. That is, in fact, where most oil ends up. But there are a considerable number of other uses for oils, including foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and plastic feedstocks.
Anyone who has been following the sustainability conversation for a while has undoubtedly heard about the promise of algae as a raw material. Not only can algae be grown in concentrated forms, requiring far less land per unit of energy than other biofuels, but it can also be tailored through various forms of genetic manipulation, to produce just about any type of oil imaginable. The other important feature of algae is that it feeds directly on carbon dioxide, which means it can be combined with an emission source to provide a form of biological sequestration, resulting in processes with very low, possibly even negative, carbon footprints.
Back in 2013, we reported on the story of Solazyme, a producer of algae-derived oils, working with bio-refiner AltAir to produce a bio-derived jet fuel that was tested on several United Airlines flights. AltAir used a converted diesel refinery with a 30 million gallon annual capacity for advanced biofuel production.
Solazyme was poised to become a major producer of algae-based fuels until it ran into delays scaling up its Moema production facility in Brazil. It was then that the company made a pivot: leveraging the flexibility inherent in algal oil development toward higher-value oils, such as those used in foods and cosmetics that could be profitable at much lower production volumes.
Now, the biofuel production arrangement with AltAir and United has shifted to Honeywell/UOP. Just last week, regular flights between LAX and SFO began using UOP’s blend of 50 percent green jet fuel. The fuel has a higher energy density than traditional jet fuel, said Veronica May, UOP’s VP and general manager of renewable energy and chemicals. Unlike Solazyme, UOP derives its fuel from waste oils which are abundant in the LA area. Traditional fuel is still included in the blend because of the aromatics it contains which provide lubricant properties required by aircraft engines.
At the same time, Solazyme announced that it’s changing its name to the newly-named TerraVia, and has just signed a deal with Unilever for $200 million worth of sustainable algae oils. The oils will be used in Unilever personal care products. Not only is this a big score for TerraVia, and a big “shift to focusing on higher value products” in CEO Jonathan Wolfson’s words, but it also plays into Unilever’s long-term sustainability strategy.
“The decision to use algae oils is fully aligned with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and with our goal to grow the business while reducing our overall environmental footprint,” said Alan Jope, Unilever’s president of personal care. “We have been working with Solazyme for many years to develop novel ingredients from algae, which improve the performance and sustainability profile of our personal care products. Solazyme has already been delivering consistent, sustainable and high performing algae oils, and we look forward to this next and greatly expanded commercial phase of the relationship.”
Ironically, these oils will be produced at the now-operational renewable oils plant in Brazil, which, according to a company press release, “produces more oil per hectare/acre with a lower greenhouse gas footprint than nearly all major commercially-available plant oils.” The facility is co-located with a Bonsucro-certified sugarcane mill that uses waste sugarcane material as a renewable source of energy.
Image credit: Maureen Didde: Flickr Creative Commons