We humans have been harnessing nature for ages. Last Friday at Kibbutz Ketura here in the southern Israeli desert, I saw cows in pens and algae in tubes. Guess which excited me more?
We know biomass is a wide-ranging category biologically as well as in energy terms. You’re familiar with the food chain from consumption if not from those minutes when you were actually awake in high school. But do you realize how significant each step in the food chain is to energy production?
While we are consumers farther up the chain, algae is a producer. And the scientists at Israel’s Algatech are using nature to their advantage, producing the producer as they churn out algae.
Alga Technologies (Algatech), based here at Ketura, mass produces algae for cosmetics, nutritional supplements, and now for energy conversion and production.
Research and development investigator Dr. Gabi Banet put on a pair of sunglasses and a floppy-brimmed hat before taking me outside to show me Algatech’s 150 kilometers of tubes and fast-moving photosynthesis. The sun and heat can be oppressive for people to walk around in.
Algatech starts with petri dishes, those circular plastic trays used for basic cell replication in laboratories around the world. Here we find green algae that grow naturally in southern Europe, not southern Israel. Algatech’s feedstock spends most of its growth cycle in these dishes, before moving along to a massive system of pumps and tubes sitting in the desert sun.
This region, the Arava Valley of the Negev Desert, has the highest solar radiation levels anywhere in the world. Between ten and 14 hours a day of direct sunlight hit these plastic tubes and sleeves that produce the astaxanthin, an important antioxidant of the same family as beta carotene.
From green color the algae becomes brown in the sun and then eventually pink-red. The process takes about four months to complete on an industrial scale, but for fuel production this work is still in an early research stage.
In nature, shrimp and salmon get their pink flesh from consuming these pink algae. Unlike the green algae you may see in a pond or lake, or the kelp seaweed that provides us with immensely important sushi roll material, the algae produced here is always flowing in water. It is unicellular, not multicellular, which means there are no thick carpets of algae at the facility.
It is also a closed system, protected from environmental pollutants even though the Arava region has only 3,000 inhabitants with relatively little airborne grime.
In its most promising energy application, however, these algae will actually suck up smog. Ongoing Algatech R&D is bent on developing an algal application for traditional greenhouse gas emitters, namely power plants.
By placing large amounts of algae in the vicinity of CO2-spewing smokestacks, possibly in vast pools, CO2 will be recycled by astaxanthin pigments, which will then give off cleaner CO2 fumes. The result is zero net carbon dioxide emissions, with the further potential to actually feed back into the power plant itself.
The algae cycle would make power plants more efficient, limiting fossil fuel input while cleaning the air around the operation.
This multimillion-dollar project has a combination of funding from international non-profit organizations, Kibbutz Ketura itself, and the research end is fed by what is already an industrially successful operation in nutriceuticals (antioxidant supplements) and lipid (fat) production for things like lipstick (which used to be made from whale blubber).
Biodiesel applications are also being intensely examined, as the same fatty output that makes algae a cosmetic ingredient can also be channeled into fuel production.
Whatever the end result, the team at Algatech is already making promising advances towards algae-derived energy, with industrial uses like power-plant cogeneration that reach far beyond what most biofuel feedstocks can offer.
Furthermore, this Tuesday at the Israel Venture Association conference in Tel Aviv, which highlighted emerging technological trends and mixed venture capitalists with forward-thinking engineers, clean-tech was on everyone’s lips at Israel’s next big shot at revolutionary innovation enterprises to go up on Nasdaq.
As AlgaTech and its research partners proceed, I will keep you up to date with the latest information.