|Solix calculations on the theoretical maximum production of algal oil. (See below.) Click to enlarge. Source: Kristina Weyer, Solix Biofuels|
Solix Biofuels, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based early-stage company focused on algae-based intermediates for fuel and chemical production (earlier post), has raised $10.5 million in its first round of outside funding, and has reached an agreement with investors for an additional commitment of $5 million, to be used to build an algae biofuel facility near Durango, Colo. The pilot project is intended to showcase Solix’s ability to produce biofuel and feedstocks for the chemicals industry at commercially-feasible production levels and costs.
The funding will support Solix’s development of its fourth-generation technology, including a proprietary closed photo-bioreactor system intended to produce biocrude from algae cost-effectively. The $5 million follow-on commitment from the investor group will provide construction financing for the pilot plant, which will be developed jointly by Solix Biofuels and Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC.
The biofuel plant will be located on a ten-acre site on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Southwest Colorado. It will be built in two phases, with the first to be completed in 12 to 18 months and consisting of four acres of photo-bioreactors for growing algae, and one acre for a lab facility. Upon completion of the first phase, Solix will build an additional five-acre expansion that will allow the pilot facility to produce at commercial scale.
Two primary factors contribute to algal oil yield: the productivity of the algae, and their lipid content as a percentage of the biomass. Both vary with the species of algae. Estimates of oil production from algae range widely, including some very large projections (e.g., 100,000 gallons acre-1 yr-1 as reported on CNN in April 2008 , which would exceed the theoretical limits of photosynthesis, according to several analyses).
At the recent 2008 Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle, Washington, Dr. Kristina Weyer of Solix presented calculations of the theoretical maximum for algal oil production. She used two cases:
A theoretical case, including perfectly clear skies at the equator (where solar energy is at a maximum), maximally efficient photosynthesis, 70% oil content in the algae, and other efficiencies assumed perfect.
Only about 45% of sunlight has the suitable wavelength (400 to 700 nm) (photosynthetically available radiation, PAR) to drive photosynthesis. With this as a basis, Weyer assumed no loss of light transmission loss and no reduced photon absorption. She factored in the 73.3% inherent photosynthetic loss, but did not factor in cellular energy use.
A practical case, using site-specific solar data from six locations (Kuala Lumpur, Denver, Málaga, Tel Aviv, Honolulu and Phoenix), maximally efficient photosynthesis, 50% oil, and more realistic assumptions for other efficiencies.
She assumed a 10% light transmission loss, 50% reduced photon absorption, and cellular energy use of 40%.
In the theoretical case, she calculated maximum algal oil production of 53,000 gal acre-1 year -1. In the practical cases, the yield ranged from a low of 4,900 gallons in Kuala Lumpur to a high of 6,500 gallons in Phoenix. However, even the reduced practical range for yield is far above current capabilities, as presented at the Summit.
In the concluding presentation of the Summit, Dr. John Benemann calculated maximum production with current technology at around ~2,000 gallons acre-1 year -1, with a potential upside of 2-3x with genetically improved algae. “Anything much higher is fantasy,” he said.
(Benemann began studying microalgae in 1974 at UC Berkeley as an independent investigator at the Sanitary Engineering Research Laboratory. He has been a full-time consultant for nearly 20 years and during much of this time has also been a part-time researcher at UC Berkeley.)
Solix says that currently, algae grown in photo-bioreactors at its headquarters yield more than five times the amount of fuel per acre of land per year than agriculture-based fuels including ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy and canola, at their current commercial yields.
Although yields vary, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. pegs biodiesel yield from soybeans in the US at 66 gallons per acre, and from canola at 92 gallons per acre. (Other estimates put average soybean oil yield at 46-48 gallons acre-1.)Pioneer puts the oil content of soybeans at ~18% and of canola at ~44%.
Solix engineers have created systems that automatically adjust for environmental changes such as sunlight and temperature to optimize growing conditions. The Solix system has the ability to capture emissions directly from power plants and factories.
Solix Biofuels is a spin-off and technology partner of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. Solix seed funds were used to sponsor research by CSU faculty and graduate students to identify algae species with the best potential to grow at large scale and produce high yields of fuel and chemical feedstocks, and to develop technology that can bring the process to commercial scale.
Dr. Bryan Willson, professor of mechanical engineering at CSU, serves as chief technology officer for Solix Biofuels and is a co-founder of the company and a former member of its board of directors. Willson also serves as director of the Clean Energy Supercluster, which aims to speed the development of technological innovation—such as the algae-to-oil photo-bioreactor—to the commercial marketplace.
The Series A funding was led by I2BF Venture Capital, a London-based venture capital firm focused on biofuels, and Bohemian Investments, a private investment company based in Fort Collins, Colo. Participating in the round are Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC, an Ignacio, Colo.-based company that manages alternative energy investments for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe; Valero Energy Corp., the largest US oil refinery operator, based in San Antonio, Texas; and Infield Capital.
Two new members will join the Solix Biofuels board of directors: Jim Gillingham of Valero Energy; and Rebecca Kauffman, president and chief operating officer of Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC. They join other Solix Biofuels board members including: Brian Klemsz, Bohemian Investments; Tim Lewin, I2BF Management; and Solix CEO Henston.