Algae biofuels just got a boost. A company in Seattle announced last Wednesday that they’ve secured enough funding to expand their research on how to cultivate blue-green algae to make fuel.
Matrix Genetics is a small biotech company tucked into a corner of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Margaret McCormick, CEO of Matrix Genetics, points into a glass case in the lab where a machine gently vibrates beakers. Green algae-filled water sloshes around inside.
“You can see it’s a very pretty green color so our scientists love to work with it because it’s a lot more pleasant than other types of bacteria that we work with,” she said.
Matrix Genetics has spent four years researching cyanobacteria – or blue-green algae. They are a harmless relative of the algae that cause blooms in Puget Sound, and their DNA is very simple. Their simple DNA is what made it possible for the company to genetically modify these algae to be obese. That’s right, they’re making fat algae.
McCormick points at the swirling beakers where the algae are growing. “And what we’ll do after this is measure each sample for how much lipid the algae are producing,” she explains.
Lipids – or fats – are the focus here. The fattier the algae are, the more oil can be squeezed out of them. Once it’s processed, that oil could one day end up in your car, or airplane. Matrix Genetics has figured out how to engineer algae that will grow faster and produce more fat than other types of algae.
The company just announced a major investment from Spokane-based Avista Energy Company. Ralph Cavalieri, the associate Vice President for alternative energy at Washington State University, says it’s a good match.
“I think it makes good sense for companies that are currently using a lot of fossil fuel to start looking at ways to partner for the future so that they’re prepared.”
Algae need carbon dioxide to procreate, so putting an algae biofuel plant next to say, a natural gas plant, makes perfect sense, says Cavalieri. The algae will basically eat the carbon dioxide emissions from that gas plant, get fat and then be turned into liquid fuel. Avista has made no announcements about plans to use Matrix Genetics technology at their power generating facilities.
Using algae for biofuel is not a new idea, but it’s one that’s getting more attention in recent years. One California-based company plans to produce 100 barrels of “green crude” per day by the end of 2014. The military has also made major investments in biofuel and used algae in a recent “green fleet” demonstration. Some market research predicts that within the next decade algae biofuel production could be at 61 million barrels a year.
Cavalieri says it starts with local partnerships like Avista Energy and Matrix Genetics.
“As the scale grows, as we get more experience, as more and more companies are working in the area, improvements will steadily come,” he says. “The costs will come down, the efficiencies will steadily go up and we’ll end up not paying any more than petroleum, for example.”
That’s the key – getting the costs of algae biofuels competitive with fossil fuels. It’s also been the biggest challenge in the algae biofuel world thus far.