Today’s episode of QUEST features our 10-minute TV story about efforts to produce biofuels from algae. In 1996, when the U.S. Department of Energy concluded its 25-year research project into the potential of algae as biofuels, its report concluded that the most cost-effective way to grow algae was in open ponds. With climate change and geopolitics prompting new research into the algae-as-fuel question, some companies are pursuing the open pond route, while others are looking into closed systems such as bioreactors. In our TV story we profile OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company developing a bioreactor that looks like a miniature Christmas tree, complete with bright, colored lights. And we interview the CEO of Aurora Biofuels, a company based in the Bay Area city of Alameda, which is re-imagining open ponds, as well as trying to create strains of algae that are ideal for fuel production. Before becoming the CEO of Aurora Biofuels, Bob Walsh worked at the oil company Shell for 25 years. Here’s an excerpt of QUEST’s March, 2009, interview with Walsh, most of which didn't make it into the TV segment.
QUEST: What excited you about algae?
BOB WALSH: I ran oil products businesses for many years and understand the cost-competitiveness and the commodity basis of it. And what excited me about algae was, A, it’s renewable. B, you're using a feed stock of carbon dioxide, which is basically free. And finally, what excited me about this company, Aurora Biofuels, was the aspect of solving it end to end, not just the biotech (end of things), but also the engineering aspects.
Q: What has algae been grown for in ponds in the past?
WALSH: Algae’s been grown in open ponds for decades. And typically it’s been done with nutraceuticals – spirulina, which many people use as a protein pill. That is grown in open ponds, but not very cost-effectively because they haven’t had to be very cost-effective. They can charge $10 per pound.
Q: What would be the difference that you would be looking for in terms of cost-effectiveness, compared to what’s been done already?