A company focused on the development and commercialization of technology and infrastructure for low-carbon fuels, Primafuel, is partnering with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Microalgal Biotechnology Laboratory (MBL) in an international algae biorefinery program.
According to Rahul Iyer, Primafuel’s Chief Marketing Officer, his company 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.
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 also the president of the International Society of Applied Phycology (ISAP).
The European and US laboratories of Primafuel have developed different ways of getting biofuel from biomass. The first technique called SMAART Oil which extracts corn oil is being brought to market by a subsidiary called Primafuel Solutions.
Rahul Iyer says, “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 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.
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.
“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.” Said 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.
image is of a conceptual rendering of a large scale photobioreactor used to grow algae