Algae make a ‘carbon-neutral’ biofuel

Its deserts are hot and dry, and underground aquifers in the south are brackish or saline.

By most standards the deserts in Israel don’t make prime real estate for farmers, but as far as algae are concerned –– minute plants that grow in water and on ponds as scum –– Israel’s conditions are perfect.

And a new company from Tel Aviv called Univerve is working to turn this natural substance into third-generation renewable fuel for today and the future.

High oil prices, and the fact that traditional fossil fuels such as gasoline create dangerous greenhouse gases, have sparked an international movement to create new biofuels from renewable resources.

The US Department of Energy already recognized the potential of algae as feedstock for biofuel back in the 1970s. But until now, no agency or company has been successful at making the algae farming system cost-effective.

One Israeli, Isaac Berzin, who founded GreenFuel in the United States, gave it a try. And the Israeli company Seambiotics is creating neutraceuticals such as omega-3 from algae, but has yet to grow algae-for-fuel into a big business.

Can Univerve grease the wheels toward a new path?

Ohad Zuckerman, the CEO and co-founder of Univerve in 2009, is devising a systems process to commercialize his company. With 20 years’ experience in the seed-breeding industry, Zuckerman believes that by applying the right stressors, the best algae for fuel will emerge.

Pilot project in progress

“We are not working with transgenic crops, but are using traditional selection by putting the algae under stress, and then looking for certain traits, such as the robustness of the strains,” says Zuckerman.

He decided to focus on algae because they do not compete for food resources, land or potable water as do first- and second-generation biofuels such as sugarcane, corn or wood. Using saline-tolerant algae means that algae feedstock plants can be grown in deserts where land is plentiful and not much else will grow. And the system uses only brackish water, which is undesirable for most other purposes.

“We have a pilot plant right now in the Rotem Industrial Park near Dimona,” says Zuckerman. “By the end of 2012 we will have completed the pilot. This year we are doing streamlining, including extraction. By 2014 we will begin construction of the first project in Israel, and we have already started to exchange contracts with the owners of the land. As for projects outside of Israel, we have started working with American companies who have sent us their water for testing, and we are going to conduct the trials.”

US states including California, Arizona and New Mexico would be perfect for algae farms, he says, as well as many areas in Africa, where Univerve has started operations. Israel’s mid-May Agritech international agricultural exhibition provided a venue for Zuckerman to meet with a Nigerian delegation.

Flying by slime?

Univerve is seeking financing of $5 million, some of which will be earmarked for building the first commercial plant. The company’s four-part system will focus on selecting the right strains of algae; effective cultivation and harvesting; and ––with an American partner –– extraction of the oil.

Strategic partners could be companies involved with fuel in any capacity from generation to distribution to refining, as well as aviation, transportation or engineering companies. Aviation is a particularly attractive market for algae-based biofuel, Zuckerman says, because the fuel won’t freeze at extreme temperatures of minus-60 Centigrade (-76 Fahrenheit) high up in the air.

“Aviation companies hedge for the price of oil,” says Zuckerman. “If they work with an algae project they can secure the price and save all the hedging. It’s huge.”

Companies that produce the biofuel would earn carbon credits. While harvested algae, like fossil fuels, release greenhouses gases when burned, the difference is that the algae actually remove carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. Therefore, algae produce a carbon-neutral biofuel.

Legislation in Europe is now requiring aviation companies to offset their fuel use. Biofuel made from algae is a perfect way for aviation companies to achieve this goal, Zuckerman concludes.

By Rivka Borochov


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