|One section of the MBL-developed large photobioreactor at Ketura. Click to enlarge.|
Primafuel, a company focused on the development and commercialization of technology and infrastructure for low-carbon fuels, is partnering with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Microalgal Biotechnology Laboratory (MBL) in an international algae biorefinery program.
Primafuel holds an exclusive licensing agreement with the MBL on its photobioreactor work and strain selection, as well as any biofuels and coproducts technology developed in the future, according to Rahul Iyer, Primafuel’s Chief Marketing Officer. The MBL has been engaged in algae research for more than three decades, and has a successful record of commercializing algae production systems for the feed and nutraceutical markets. This record includes one of the world’s largest production photobioreactor systems and strain of green algae (Haematococcus Pluvialis) used by Alga Technologies to produce astaxanthin at Ketura, in Israel.
The MBL is led by Dr. Sammy Boussiba, who is currently the president of the International Society of Applied Phycology (ISAP).
In the last several years, Primafuel’s US and European laboratories have developed multiple technology platforms focused on the separation, purification, and conversion of products from biomass. The first of these technology platforms, SMAART Oil for corn oil extraction, has been commercialized through a subsidiary, Primafuel Solutions.
Our work with complex suspensions of water, oil, and biomass gave rise to the SMAART Oil system. This expertise is a subset of the oil extraction technology that we are developing. We are currently developing the IP around this specific sub-process, and will be able to offer greater detail in the coming months. We recognize this element of the process is extremely critical for efficient water removal and preservation of the high-value compounds present in certain strains of algae. Our approach is a departure from more conventional processes which are highly invasive and energy intensive.—Rahul Iyer
Primafuel’s biorefinery technology team, with labs in California and Europe, has been recognized as a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum for transformational biomass processing technologies.
Our unique solutions are tailored to maximize algae’s tremendous potential. Our biorefinery platforms extract and purify nutritional products, while producing both chemicals and renewable fuels.—Richard Woods, Primafuel CEO
The partnership with MBL is focused on producing high-value algae strains economically.
We must also exploit the ability of certain algae strains to produce very high-value compounds—this is critical toward making algae biorefinery economics viable. The highest value products are extracted and purified using our proprietary bio-separation technology. This advanced technology is in converse to more conventional approaches to downstream processing that use more invasive processes, and therefore degrade the available high-value compounds. Further downstream, our conversion technology platform is capable of producing select fine chemicals and renewable fuels.—Rahul Iyer
Primafuel will decide whether to locate those processes on-site or at a partner’s facility is one that will be determined on a project-by-project basis.
Primafuel is not yet disclosing figures or targets on oil yield and cost. Iyer noted that the aggregate system economics, including the production of a range of products, are “considerably different” than more conventional approaches to algae growth and fuel production.
At the Algae Biomass Summit in October 2008 (earlier post), Dr. Boussiba outlined some of the challenges in economically viable large-scale algae production. The photobioreactor at Ketura, which he described as the world’s largest working photobioreactor, contains 300,000 cubic meters of water and consists of a few hundred kilometers of tubes.
There are the basic aspects of reactor design and operational maintenance (such as cooling the tubes during the day and heating them at night during the winter, and figuring out how to clean the tubes). However, he noted, “engineering is not the major issue. We have very good engineering. The major problems are biological problems.”
These include oxygen control and strain stability. Algae adapt to conditions, and producers need to make sure that the algae remain the same strain as when they started. Culture contaminants can be serious problems and a parasite infestation can close production.
The message I want to convey to you is that this is a tough business, and if you don’t know what you are doing, you’ll be out in a few years...If you are working with little reactors, you are playing games, you are not in the real world. When you go to reality, it is much more complicated.—Sammy Boussiba, Algae Biomass Summit 2008