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Algae: Another way to grow edible oils

Solazyme already converts algae into transportation fuel. Coming up next: Food oils that are healthier than canola oil.

In the future, french fries might be infused with all the brimming, healthy flavor of oil produced by algae.

Biotechnology company Solazyme, which is developing techniques for converting vats of algae into car and plane fuel, will also exploit its manufacturing processes to make oils for other industries, including the food industry.

The company is already working on edible oils, Harrison Dillon, Solazyme's president, told CNET Ideally, these oils could provide greater health benefits, cost less, and be more environmentally friendly to grow than current cooking oils.

"We can provide tailor-made oils," Dillon said.

The ability to shift into new markets largely revolves around the nature of algae itself and the processes employed by the company. First, the creatures: algae are seriously greasy. The North Sea oil field and other large deposits are the fossilized remnants of algal blooms from hundreds of millions of years ago. They weren't formed by dinosaurs.

"These organisms have the most efficient pathways on the planet for oil production," added Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme's CEO. "Algae are the original oil producers."

Growing algae
Credit: Solazyme
Algae being grown in dishes in
Solazyme's labs. The company plans
to grow the algae in large vats,
like the kind you see in brew pubs,
with sugar to fatten the organisms
up. Oil from the algae can then be
used to make fuel or cooking oil.

Additionally, more complex plants evolved from algae. As a result, the basic biochemistry for getting algae to produce oil remains similar to what's seen in rapeseed or soy plants. Through selective breeding and other techniques, strains of algae can be induced to generate oils with very specific properties (such as a certain fatty acid content, smoke point, or viscosity).

Algae on a sugar binge
Meanwhile, Solazyme has come up with a fermentation process that the company claims allows it to produce large amounts of biomass rapidly. The company inserts algae (typically one species) into a vat, dumps in a bunch of sugar, and then controls the pressure and other environmental factors inside the vat to induce the algae to metabolize the sugar into body oil.

Competitors such as GreenFuel Technologies or LiveFuels grow algae through photosynthesis. Solazyme claims that fermentation is much more efficient. (More on this later.)

"The algae are very productive on sugar," said Wolfson. "They are bathed in their energy source."

For the food world, fermentation provides flexibility, said Harrison. Farmers chose to grow different oil plants largely out of necessity. Palm trees don't grow well in the Midwest, so farmers there specialize in soybean oil instead. Even when possible, switching crops requires planning and plowing.

In an industrial fermenter, switching crops effectively involves cleaning out the fermenter and inserting the desired mix of microorganisms and sugars.

Companies concentrating on food, water, and agriculture are rapidly gaining interest from investors, despite limited press coverage. The math is fairly compelling: the world's population is growing, current crops take inordinate amounts of energy and water to produce, and we're running out of land and water.

Another plus is these markets--along with the markets for industrial oils--might be easier to crack than the transportation fuel business. Although Solazyme inked a research-and-development deal with Chevron, getting a fuel company to commit to a new type of liquid fuel is a gargantuan task. Don Paul, CTO of Chevron, estimated last year that it takes about 15 years and $3 billon to develop a new liquid fuel.

Some people will likely recoil at the idea of buying algal cooking oil, but it probably won't taste like a pond. The marketing departments in food processing giants will also likely work on some clever names, too. After all, if they just called health-food supplement Spirulina "water scum," it probably wouldn't have sold either. (Conversely, you can drink biodiesel. I have. It takes like Wesson that's been left out for a few days.)

And when the oil is extracted, Solazyme can sell the remaining byproducts.

"We can sell the non-oil biomass for animal feed," said Dillon.

Dillon and Wolfson both point out that Solazyme has been in business since 2003--well before the energy investment craze--and have enlisted prominent academics such as molecular biologist David Stern, of Cornell University, to work at the company or sit on its advisory board. (The company originally planned to get into hydrogen production too, but gave up on that.)

In fact, you could say that the company goes back even further. Dillon and Wolfson met on their first day of college back in the 1980s. They wanted to start a company together but had only a vague notion of what to do. Dillon went into biotechnology and ultimately also became a patent attorney. Wolfson got a law degree and an MBA and went into finance.

When the two first sought funds, most venture capital firms were intrigued by their idea, but didn't know how to position the company in their portfolio. Ultimately, investors shuttled the two to the partners who handled pharma deals.