How algae is becoming much more than pond scum

From renewable biofuels to wastewater treatment and green building applications, the slimy water plant is getting much more respect in cleantech.

There are some pretty unique sources for biofuels, not the least of which is the green slime that I used to have to clean off my aquarium glass when the loaches weren't keeping up with their job.

Yes, I'm talking about algae, although obviously not your average hobbyist fishtank variety. There has been a smattering of related news over the past two months, as various related cleantech companies reach the next stage of commercial development and field tests.

Algae is interesting as a potential biofuel because it can be grown in pretty hostile climates and (depending on the approach) in either brackish or seawater.

Here are just a few ways that algae might touch your life in the future, hopefully without making you feel slimed:

As something to fill up your car.

For the past month, drivers in California have been able to fill up their diesel-drinking vehicles with a fuel blend that uses 20 percent of Solazyme's algae biodiesel combined with 80 percent conventional petroleum. The test has been conducted by Propel Fuels, and the feedback should be available in the near future.

As an ingredient for pharmaceuticals or high-protein fish food.

Aurora Algae, another company that is producing algae biomass, expanded its production in late September with a demonstration facility in Karratha in Western Australia. The company hopes to produce 12 to 15 metrics tons of algal biomass every month using six one-acre ponds.

Aurora got a grant ($2 million Australian) to test out its cultivation and harvesting techniques. It is developing its algae for fuel applications, but also for pharmaceutical companies (think anything that needs omega three) and for aquaculture.

The algae that Aurora is growing has 40 times more protein that soy, plus it uses carbon dioxide as a feedstock, says Leslie van der Meuelen, the company's vice president of product development.

As another approach for green buildings.

Algae could also play a role in wastewater cleanup, which is the problem that another cleantech startup, OriginOil, is trying to solve.

The company is working on a number of systems that use a chemical free process to filter oil and other impurities out of water.

French company Ennesys is planning to use the technology in combination with "urban algae" fields on the roofs and walls of buildings. The buildings use the algae as a source for cleaning their wastewater, plus harvesting it as a fuel source helps offset their emissions. The algae also serves as a heat shield that makes it easier to keep inside temperatures balances, so you can look at them as an insulation source. 

The illustration below shows a concept of how the system works.



AND, the video that follows explains how the process works.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the involvement that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has in the algae sector – his Cascade Investments venture has put money into another algae company called Sapphire Energy. This summer, Sapphire finished the first phase of its large-scale algae farm on 2,200 acres of desert in the New Mexico desert. The focus of its operation is the production of crude oil alternatives.

There are plenty of innovative and novel approaches to creating alternative energy and fuel sources. Pike Research has estimated that algae biofuels could reach production levels of 61 million gallons per year by 2020, representing about $1.3 billion in revenue. It would still be just a tiny portion of the overall market, but that's a 72 percent annual growth rate. And it doesn't account for all the other uses for which it is being considered.

Stay tuned for more to come on algae as some of the early investments hit their next phase of development.