Biofuel Gets A Boost In The Northwest From Fat Algae

Aug 29, 2012

Algae biofuels just got a boost. A small biotech company in Seattle announced Wednesday that they’ve secured enough funding to expand their research on how to cultivate blue-green algae to make fuel. Ashley Ahearn reports for EarthFix.

Matrix Genetics is a little biotech company tucked into a corner of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer research center in Seattle.

Margaret McCormick’s the CEO of Matrix Genetics. She takes me into the lab and points into a glass case where a machine gently vibrates beakers. Green algae-filled water sloshes around inside.

McCormick: “You can see it’s a very pretty green color so our scientists love to work with it because it’s a lot more pleasant than other types of bacteria that we work with.”

Matrix Genetics has spent four years researching cyanobacteria – or blue-green algae. They’re a harmless relative of the algae that cause blooms in Puget Sound, and their DNA is very simple. That’s made it possible for McCormick’s company to genetically modify these algae to be obese. That’s right, they’re making fat algae.

McCormick: “And what we’ll do after this is measure each sample for how much lipid the algae are producing.”

Lipids – or fats - are the focus here. The fattier the algae are, the more oil can be squeezed out of them. Once it’s processed, that oil could one day end up in your car, or airplane. Matrix Genetics has figured out how to engineer algae that will grow faster and produce more fat than other types of algae.

The company just announced a major investment from Spokane-based energy company Avista Utilities. Ralph Cavalieri is the associate Vice President for alternative energy at Washington State University.

Cavalieri: “I think it makes good sense for companies that are currently using a lot of fossil fuel to start looking at ways to partner for the future so that they’re prepared.”

Algae need CO2 to procreate, so Cavalieri says putting an algae biofuel plant next to say, a natural gas plant, makes perfect sense. The algae will basically eat the CO2 emissions from that plant, get fat and then be turned into liquid fuel.

Using algae for biofuel is not a new idea, but it’s one that’s been getting more attention in recent years. Some market research predicts that within the next decade algae biofuel production could be at 61 million barrels a year.

Cavalieri says it starts with local partnerships like Avista Energy and Matrix Genetics.

Cavalieri: “As the scale grows, as we get more experience, as more and more companies are working in the area, improvements will steadily come, the costs will come down, the efficiencies will steadily go up and we’ll end up not paying any more than petroleum, for example.”

That’s the key – getting the costs of algae biofuels competitive with fossil fuels. It’s also been the biggest challenge in the algae biofuel world thusfar.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio