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The story of Jack and Jim

JACK Van Olst and business partner JIM Carlberg, both marine biologists, in 1979 founded Kent SeaTech fish farm, which gained prominence as the first to cultivate striped bass for food, selling 3 million pounds of bass a year in the mid-1990s.

But the San Diego-based company's profits gradually eroded because of rising feed, fuel and shipping costs and competition from cheap, imported fish.

So in February 2009, its operators closed the fish farm and turned to growing algae, something they had learned as part of their fish business.

They knew algae could purify water since they had used it to clean the pools where the fish were raised. The algae efficiently consumed ammonia and other contaminants in the fish effluent, allowing about 80 percent of the water to be recycled.

So Olst and Carlberg figured that purifying water with algae might become a profitable venture for the company's private investors, Richard and Vincent Kent of Chicago.

Also, they noticed that excitement was mounting about the potential of extracting oil from algae that could be refined into biodiesel and aviation fuel.

Such oil already has been produced and refined in small amounts. But the military and private industry, including major oil producers and aerospace firms, hope for ways to produce algae oil cheaply enough and in quantities large enough to replace similar fuels produced from petroleum.

Carlberg noted that while solar and wind power can replace fossil fuels in generating electricity, an alternative is needed to provide liquid transportation fuels, particularly since petroleum is a limited resource that eventually will run out.


With that ultimate goal in mind, Kent SeaTech changed its name to Kent BioEnergy and is researching the most efficient ways to grow and harvest algae in 25 acres of green-hued ponds.

Van Olst said the company has about a dozen patents and others pending, including one for a process by which algae is made to clump and fall to the bottom of tanks for easy collection.

Al Darzins, the applied science group manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, said Kent BioEnergy is one of about 100 companies worldwide trying to develop algae for commercial use and competing for private and government funding.

An advantage of algae is it can be grown using brackish water and land unsuitable for food crops. The single-cell plants multiply rapidly with sunlight, water and nourishment from nitrogen, phosphate and carbon dioxide.

Through photosynthesis they turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. So the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil-fuel powered plants that produce electricity theoretically could be diverted to algae ponds and recycled back to algae and then fuel.

ExxonMobil estimates that algae could yield more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, compared to 250 gallons from corn and 50 gallons from soy. It has invested $300 million with another San Diego company, Synthetic Genomics, to create fuel-producing algae.

Producing algae diesel fuel cheaply enough to compete with petroleum will require a lot of work, said Darzins. Although a barrel of petroleum diesel fuel today would cost about $75, the same amount of diesel fuel produced from algae would cost $400, he estimated.

Cost estimates are uncertain because no one has grown algae in commercial quantities. The biggest algae projects on the drawing board are proposed for about 300 acres. It would take millions of acres of algae ponds to make a dent in replacing the 60 billion gallons of petroleum diesel fuel used each year in the United States, Darzins noted.


Some companies are attempting to lower the cost of manufacturing algae fuels through genetic engineering of new strains that can produce oil in higher volumes. Others like Kent BioEnergy seek to lower the cost of growing existing strains of algae.

One method, Carlberg said, is to force oil to accumulate in the plants by feeding them a nitrogen restricted diet.

Also, rather than concentrate solely on cultivating algae for oil, Kent BioEnergy's business strategy is to harvest algae for multiple byproducts, including animal feed, that currently are worth more than oil, and to market algae as a water purification process.

By using the algae for multiple purposes, he said, the overall production cost is lowered.


Because the fish are gone, Kent BioEnergy uses fertilizer to grow algae at its research facility near the Salton Sea. But Greg Schwartz, director of systems engineering, said that by feeding algae with nutrients found in wastewater from food processing plants or using algae to clean up waterways polluted with agricultural runoff, production costs could fall by 60 percent.

After processing algae for feed and oil, Schwartz said, leftover waste could be put through an anaerobic digester to create methane and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide then could be dispersed into the tanks of living algae and the methane used to generate electricity for algae farming operations. The energy savings would increase another 20 percent, Schwartz said.

Kent BioEnergy is completing a two-year demonstration project using algae to treat water runoff at a landfill in Virginia, and the company hopes to get a commercial contract to work at other landfills owned by the same company, said Van Olst.

He said he is also looking for other opportunities to use algae to clean up lakes in China and would like to help mop up agricultural contamination from the Salton Sea. He said the company has 800 acres near the Salton Sea that could hold ponds.

The direction that Kent BioEnergy takes will depend in large part on the interests of the private investors or government agencies from which it can raise funding. Van Olst said his goal is to develop a business that can generate profits while joining in the research to make algae fuels a reality.

"It is going to be a long time before people can make economic biofuels that can compete with petroleum. Our plan is if we can do something else like treating waste or make other more valuable products like animal feed out of algae, we can keep the company alive while making the Holy Grail, which is biofuels," he said.

Makes sense isnt it ?
Fri August 20 2010 10:51:12 PM by Arden bio remediation  |  algae fuel  |  other products 1651 views
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