We recently received a press release from a fledging company called Renewed World Energies claiming that it has created the first commercially viable algae-processing system. The company expects to have two acres of commercial algae growing systems by this fall. It's quite a claim considering the slew of well-funded algae fuel startups racing towards commercial viability. Which got us thinking: how far are the algae fuel players—the ones with major backing—from commercial viability? Below, we take a look.
This six year old startup has $76 million in backing and a development deal with Chevron. The company, which grows algae in dark fermentation tanks by feeding it sugar, was the first algae producer to be approved for algae jet fuel by the American Society for Testing and Materials. Solazyme expects to have a commercial plant by 2010, but considering that the company is practically a dinosaur in the algae industry and still hasn't scaled up, the jury's out on whether it will succeed.
Founded two years ago, this investor's darling, which makes crude oil from algae feedstock, has already raised over $100 million. The company has proved its jet fuel muster by testing its algae fuel on Continental Airlines and JAL. That makes Sapphire's production schedule a bit more believable than Solazyme's, but it's still incredibly ambitious. Sapphire expects to make 1 million gallons of algae-derived biodiesel and jet fuel by 2011, 100 million gallons by 2018, and 1 billion gallons by 2025. The 1 million gallon goal seems reachable, but the 1 billion gallon goal is a little unrealistic.
Synthetic Genomics got lucky earlier this month when Exxon plunked down over $600 million in an investment supporting the algae fuel company's research and development. SGI has engineered algae to secrete hydrocarbons in a process that uses a 10th of what is required to produce fuel from corn. But despite Exxon's investment, SGI claims that it needs billions more to commercialize the technology in Exxon's infrastructure. Even then, it will take 5 to 10 years before SGI can produce large quantities of fuel. Conservative estimates aside, Synthetic Genomics has a better chance at succeeding than most—with one of the richest companies in the world betting on it's success, it's hard to see how SGI can fail.
With over $800 million in funding and a licensing agreement with Sonora Fields for a project in Mexico that will produce one billion gallons of fuel each year, Algenol is further along than, well, everybody. Unlike other algae fuel companies that are focusing on biodiesel, Algenol is working solely on ethanol with a process uses algae, sunlight and CO2 in enclosed bioreactors. The company, which has been around since 2006, plans to finish its Mexico project this year and begin producing 10,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year in short order. Ambitious? Yes, but Algenol has the experience and the funding to know when its technology is ready. Next up: Algenol is working with Dow Chemical on a Texas demonstration plant that will be able to produce up to 100,000 gallons of fuel each year.