Algae Summit opening morning includes company execs, US senator

By Luke Geiver | October 26, 2011

Following the supportive, humorous speech given by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., during the opening morning of the 2011 Algae Biomass Summit could have been difficult for a group of high-ranking algae executives chosen to update a room of nearly 1,000 people on the state of the industry. Franken’s speech was a combination of standard political rhetoric with his call for algae to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuel, mixed with well-timed humor exemplified by his laugh-inducing phrases like “the United States of Algal America” and, most importantly, a strong, supportive tone in his message that “it’s time to stop subsidizing dirty energy.”

But the panel group that included Cynthia Warner, president of Sapphire Energy, Kevin Berner, president of Phycal Inc., Tim Burns, president of BioProcess Algae, Dan Simon, president of Heliae Development and Paul Woods, CEO of Algenol Biofuels all proved during their speeches that although they don’t hold political office, they all have accomplished a great deal in their industry. Each executive gave a brief update on the status of their companies, with every update showing some form of significant progress ranging from large demonstration-scale groundbreaking and operations (Sapphire Energy and BioProcess Algae) to major commercial contracts signed (Phycal).

While each company update showed the growth of the industry and fit into the morning’s opening remarks by Mark Allen, chair of the ABO, who earlier in the morning told the crowd that algae “was on the verge of breaking out on a global scale,” the business models and overall approaches to algae utilization strategies varied widely from speaker to speaker. For Sapphire Energy, the model is to operate under the assumption that large-scale, million gallon operations that produce an algae-based fuel are the way to succeed. Burns, of BioProcess Algae, explained how his company is focused on feed additives and other value-added products made from algae bioreactors co-located with ethanol facilities. Paul Woods did use the term ethanol, but his company is focused on using algae to produce ethanol and fresh water. Dan Simon of Heliae Development told the crowd, “We want to produce algae technology that can go out and be used by people with larger breadbaskets than [ours].”

Although the executives explained vastly different business models and algae approaches, they did agree on a few key points. To the question of open pond versus photobioreactors for growing algae, Warner and Woods both pointed out that it depends on the end result a company is looking for. In the case of Sapphire, a company looking to produce millions of gallons of algae-based fuel, open ponds provide a much more economical approach to high-output production. But for other companies focused on value-added products suited for pharmaceutical use or animal feed, a photobioreactor may be better as they allow for a greater control of algae purity and quality.

Another issue all the speakers agreed on was the importance of CO2. As Warner said, “CO2 is the feedstock for algae” and, because of that, it is a major factor every algae company needs to consider. Although companies like BioProcess Algae have shown the possibility of co-locating with a CO2 emitter, every speaker agreed that, in the future, co-location might not always be possible, and because the idea of a carbon cap-and-trade system is virtually never going to happen, CO2 supplies are high on the list of project considerations.

Kevin Berner of Phycal also answered another question frequently asked to the major algae companies. To the question of which is better, algae-based fuel or algae-based products, he pointed out (as the others did) that it depends on the business strategy formulated early on in an algae project. Berner did shed light on the commonly held belief that an algae company can simply produce both. From his perspective, doing both would not be easy due to the difficulties of allocating capital away from a high-value product to a low-value fuel.

Mary Rosenthal, executive director for the ABO, initially addressed the crowd on the first morning, pointing out the energy she could sense at the show and in the industry. And Woods ended the morning panel discussions with a similar sentiment. “2012 will be a very exciting year,” he said, adding that “2012 will be a very interesting story.”

For more on the ABS, visit the Algae Technology & Business website. 

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