A couple of months ago I met the founders of Blue Marble Energy at a party for the Apollo Alliance. Following up, I sat down with the CEO, Kelly Ogilvie, to learn about Blue Marble, which is the only "algal biofuel" company I have come across that really makes sense to me. (While at the party, I also chatted with Congressman Jay Inslee for quite a while. Smart fellow. Anyone interested in energy policy should have a look at his book, Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy.)
Full disclosure: Blue Marble and Biodesic may begin collaborating soon, so I am not an entirely disinterested observer.
Blue Marble Energy is built around the idea of "recombining" existing biological processes to turn biomass into valuable products. From the website: "[Blue Marble Energy] uses anaerobic digestion to generate natural gas and other valuable bio-chemical streams." The company is distinguished from its competitors by its focus on using micro- and macro-algae harvested from natural blooms, including those caused or enhanced by human activity, as feedstock for artificial digestion systems modeled on those of ruminants. Blue Marble combines different sets of microbes in a series of bioreactors to produce particular products.
In other words, Blue Marble is using industrialized, artificial cow stomachs to produce fuel and industrial products.
The company's general strategy is to first digest cellulose into synthesis gas (carbon dioxide and hydrogen) using one set of organisms, and then feed the synthesis gas to organisms that generate methane or higher margin chemicals and solvents. The company expects to produce 200-300 cubic meters of methane per wet ton of algal feedstock. While biofuels are an obvious target for technology like this, the company also recognizes that fuels are a low margin commodity business. Thus Blue Marble also plans to produce higher margin industrial products, including solvents such as various esters that sell for $400-800 per gallon.
While other companies are attempting to directly produce fuels from cultured algae, Blue Marble believes these efforts will be hampered by growth limitations in most circumstances. Biofuel production from algal lipids synthesized during photosynthetic growth requires conditions that cause metabolic stress, resulting in lipid production, but that also limit total biomass yield to ~2-5 grams per liter. In contrast, Blue Marble "respects the complex ecology", in the words of Mr. Ogilvie, and relies on photoheterotrophic growth of whatever happens to grow in open water.
Blue Marble has already obtained contracts to clean up algal growth caused by human activity around Puget Sound. The company typically harvests ~100 grams per liter from these "natural" algal blooms. Future plans include expanding these clean up operations around the U.S. and overseas, and growing algae in wastewater, which would provide a high-energy resource base for both closed and open system growth. In principle, because the technology is modeled on ruminant digestion, many different sources of biomass should be usable as feedstock. Experience thus far indicates that feedstocks with higher cellulose content result in higher yield production of fuels and solvents.
Compared with other algal biofuel companies, Blue Marble does not presently require high capital physical infrastructure for growing algae. However, the company will rely on marine harvesting operations, which bring along a different set of complexities and costs. I wonder if the company might be best served if it outsourced harvesting activities and focused on the core technology of turning biomass into higher value products.
While the Blue Marble is not now genetically modifying their production organisms, this will likely prove a beneficial move in the long term. Tailoring both the production ecosystem and the metabolisms of component organisms will certainly be a goal of competitors, as is already the case with companies spanning a wide range of developmental stages, including DuPont, Amyris, and Synthetic Genomics. Yet whereas modified production organisms grown in closed vats are likely to face little opposition on any front, genetically modified feedstocks grown in open waters are another matter. For the time being, Blue Marble has an advantage over plant genomics companies because in the company's plans to use unmodified biomass as feedstock, whether algae or grasses, it will avoid many regulatory and market risks facing companies that hope to grow genetically modified feedstocks in large volumes.
They have a long way to go, but in my judgement Blue Marble appears to have a better grasp than most on the economic and technical challenges of using algae as feedstock for fuels and materials.
"It came from the West Seattle swamp - to fill your tank", Eric Engleman, Puget Sound Business Journal, August 8, 2008
"Swamp fever", Peter Huck, The Guardian, January 9 2008
"New wave in energy: Turning algae into oil", Erica Gies, International Herald Tribune, June 29, 2008