Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Arizona: not on the algae biofuels map?

In December Biofuels Digest published an article "The Hottest 50 Companies in Bioenergy and the DOE Integrated Bioenergy Grants, in maps." They produced maps that represent:

1. Locations of the companies in their list of the "50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy."
2. Locations of pilot-scale projects of these companies.
3. Locations of demonstration-scale and commercial-scale projects for these companies.
4. Locations of pilot and demonstration-scale projects that received support in the $564 million Department of Energy IBR grants, announced in December 2009.

Observe Arizona's status in each of these maps (I realize that the keys aren't legible in these thumbnails, but here's all you need to know: blank = zero).


Granted, Biofuels Digest focused on bioenergy broadly, not just on algae. Nonetheless, in my view these maps demonstrate a problem: Arizona is not on the map (literally and figuratively) when it comes to algae biofuels -- and we absolutely should be!

Arizona should have owned solar: that is, we should be the leading region for solar in the way that Silicon Valley is the leader in information technology. For reasons I won't try to diagnose or analyze here, we aren't. We have a second chance, however, with "green solar" (to borrow Mark Edwards' term for algae). I believe that algae is a fundamentally transformational technology, akin to the semiconductor in its potential impact. Arizona has an extraordinary opportunity to lead in connection with algae biofuels and related products and services (nutraceuticals, bioplastics, wastewater remediation, carbon capture, etc.).

Consider the assets we have available to us:

1. Unbeatable natural assets: (a) sun, (b) heat, (c) abundant cheap, flat land, and (d) plentiful briny aquifers (not useful for much else given their salinity) and wastewater.

2. Incredible world-class research efforts, including the highly acclaimed [1] [2] work by Drs. Sommerfeld and Hu at ASU Polytechnic and the impressive work at ASU BioDesign. [4/23/10 update: the University of Arizona is also emerging as a research leader.]

3. Leading algae entrepreneurs, including XL Renewables (one of the few companies in the world to be currently producing algae for commercial sale, not just engaged in demo projects or research), Diversified Energy, Desert Sweet Biofuels, Energy Derived (.pdf), PetroSun (featured in the film Fuel), Heliae, Bye Energy and Algae Biosciences.

4. World-class policy analysts and thought-leaders, such as Mark Edwards (author of the award-winning and bestselling Green Algae Strategy), Colleen Crowninshield at the Tucson Clean Cities Coalition, Dave Conz and the team at ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO), and Sandy Askland and the team at ASU's Center for the Study of Law, Science and Innovation.

5. Increasingly strong support from trade groups and NGOs such as the Arizona Bioindustry Association, Science Foundation Arizona and the Flinn Foundation.

[4/23/10 addition: a commenter correctly noted that I neglected to mention two key pioneering efforts by APS: (1) the 2006 project at RedHawk, and (2) the $70M carbon sequestration project at Cholla Generation Station.]

To date, despite these strong assets, Arizona has lagged behind as other regions have taken the lead in connection with algae. I'm hopeful that this is beginning to change, for several reasons:

1. The establishment of ASU Lightworks under Gary Dirks can provide a focal point of leadership for the Arizona algae community.

2. The Algal Biomass Organization's Algal Biomass Summit, an important national conference, will be held in Phoenix in September. This provides a unique opportunity to showcase Arizona as a leading region for algae technology.

3. Government stakeholders are beginning to engage. Progressive government entities such as the City of Phoenix and the Town of Gilbert have provided demonstrable/tangible support, and other local and state government entities appear increasingly interested in engaging in the fashion we've seen in other states.

Algae presents an extraordinary opportunity for Arizona. I hope that we can capitalize on it.


ryanofphoenix said...

Az has the largest Algal CO2 mitigation system in the world. It's functioning at 1/5 capacity, but it is already the world's largest production of biomass. It's scheduled to be fully online by Summer 2010. Also, Arizona alone pioneered the Solar & Electric 500, and still has the most advanced solar voltaics in the world in operation at the SRP plant in Tempe. Solar is currently being pushed aside by major utilities, but local contractors are installing panels like door knobs!

Brad said...

@ryanofphoenix -- belatedly: thanks for your comment! You are right, I neglected to mention the APS Redhawk project (circa 2006) and the current APS project at Cholla Generating Station) -- two other great examples of pioneering algae projects in AZ. I'll edit the post to add info about these.

Shrini said...

I am trying to volunteer with some bio diesel company but no one is interested. The problem I think is that people do not connect the dots. There is immense potential to export the diesel out to areas which don't have oil reserves for services like Shipping, Railways and military projects not on US soil. Europe, South asia and SE Asia seem to be the largest potential consumers as they import their oil anyways. Its a shame that people are so busy with US based numbers that they fail to see how rampantly the developing world uses diesel for basic needs like Electricity backup during power outages, freight, outboard motors etc.If US govt does not incentivize biodiesel, I am sure some other oil importing govt surely will.
If anyone in PHX area needs help then Let me know (shriniwas dot k at gmail dot com)