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The AIM Interview: Dr. John Benemann 2

As pioneers go, in the modern business of algae biofuels and co-products, possibly no one has built a longer record of accomplishment than Dr. John Benemann. Involved in algae biofuels and related research since the early seventies, Dr. Benemann was the Principal Investigator of several U.S. DOE government research projects addressing the practice and potential of algae biofuels, after, and even before, the Aquatic Species Program (ASP) started in 1978, and of its Close-Out Report, after the US DOE ceased funding the ASP in 1996.

With a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, he has made his mark as a researcher, teacher and consultant in the areas of microalgae products, waste treatment, biofuels, photosynthesis, and greenhouse gas abatement

But there is something curious about his strong opinions that many in this new industry view as, to be polite, cautionary. So, is John Benemann an algae optimist, as he claims, or a pessimist, as some interpret his lectures at many, he says too many, algae and other conferences? Is he a lone doubter of the future of algae biofuel, or a realist in the midst of the current surge of enthusiasts? Maybe you, our reader, must decide from this interview, in which he discusses his view of the limitations and unfinished research in this quickly moving field.

Despite what some might consider his throwing of wet blankets, he does come across as a firm believer in algae?s potential. But he doesn?t mince his words and he is definitely not out to win any popularity contests. On the other hand, his sincerity is contagious and he certainly knows this stuff. In the Malcolm Gladwell standard for becoming an expert, Benemann has done his 10,000 hours of practice, many times over.

We spent most of a morning recently at the beautiful Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley hills, talking about the past, present and future of that mysteriously fascinating organism.

Q: How do you view the developing algae industry?

A: My view of the algae industry is that it is really a question of moving from high value specialty products to commodity products, whether those commodity products are animal feed or fuel. The high value products, like Spirulina, Chlorella, Haematococcus (for astaxanthin production) or Dunaliella (for beta-carotene), which are all in the nutritional industry, sell from about $10 to much more per kilo, or basically tens to up to a hundred thousand dollars per metric ton. Fuel and feed products, which are both in a similar price range, sell for less than $1000 per ton. So you?re talking about well over an order of magnitude difference in value between the current technology, or at least the current business, and what needs to be achieved in reduction of production costs, if you want to go into algae commodity products.

Q: So how far are we away from having an algae biofuels market, in your opinion?

A: That?s a question I?m very often asked. When are we going to have algae fuels? And my simple answer is: when it happens. And the reason why is, anything that requires research and development means that we don?t know exactly what the answer is. When I say we don?t know, I mean we may know how to do it, but we don?t know what the results will be, otherwise we wouldn?t be doing the research. If we did, it would be just tweaking a little bit of development on an existing process, making it a little more efficient. But at this point there is still a very big gap between where we are right now and where we need to go to reduce the costs to a biofuels level. So, it?s unpredictable. It could happen in three years, five years, ten years. If I had to predict, I would predict closer to ten years than three years; we will need the time to get a reasonable answer.

Q: What do you consider the most valuable accomplishment of the Aquatic Species Program?

A: There was the pilot facility at the Roswell, New Mexico, site, which was basically done by Joe Weissman and his associates. He and I grew up in this field together, starting at Berkeley, and later on at the Aquatic Species Program, and many projects since then. He is the guy who now shows up on the ExxonMobil TV ads. The Roswell facility demonstrated the basic first level scale-up for the technology of growing algae for biofuels. Much research was done in the ASP, on a budget of $25 million dollars, in current dollars, probably more like $50 million. But it would be very difficult in my view to replicate what was achieved there, with such a limited budget, particularly with the knowledge starting at a very basic level at the time. What the ASP showed was that, in principle, it is possible to grow algae for biofuels and other applications. It also showed that a lot of things still need to be done, including achieving high levels of productivity.

Q: If you had extended the program, would you have come down to a much smaller number of strains than you did?

A: The issue of strains in algae cultivation is of course fundamental. It?s the same thing that you have in agriculture. Everything is based on having good cultivars, seeds, which can grow in your particular climatic zone, soil, and other cultivation practices. For example, the rice cultivar that would do well under the cultivation technologies in the Sacramento Delta would not do as well in the rice paddies in India. In microalgae, I?d say it would be even more the case.So each particular production system and location, in terms of the water quality, for example, will require a different strain development effort. And so the strains are going to be eventually what drives the industry, not somebody coming up with a better paddlewheel, or a more clever way of injecting CO2, or some kind of fancy new photobioreactor. Basically, it depends on the organisms. The Aquatic Species Program started that process and moved it forward, but that was still at an early stage.
Thu May 06 2010 08:35:50 AM by 5161440 1575 views

Comments - 2

  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue May 18 2010 09:07:45 AM

    Hi Afzaal !
    Great post .
    Keep it coming Afzaal.
    Wish you the very best in your exams and in your project.

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  • Manohar wrote:
    Tue May 18 2010 09:18:22 AM

    Even John Benneman thinks that it will take 10 years to make oil from algae. HMMMMMMMMM Interesting. Bye now, I thought the estimated time for commercialisation should have come down to 4/5 years ?!!!!

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