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Fuel from algae by: Stephanie Freid

Two Israeli companies are developing a cost-effective, energy efficient fuel made from micro-algae feeding off carbon dioxide emissions.

Algatech, a seven-year-old company based in Kibbutz Ketura in the Southern Negev, and Israeli-US start-up GreenFuel Technologies, are collaborating in a project designed to create a new alternative green fuel that can replace the rapidly dwindling supplies of oil currently used worldwide.

Over 150 species of algae are currently used commercially to provide food for humans and livestock, serve as thickening agents in ice cream and shampoo, and ward off disease in pharmaceutical drug form. Unaltered, algae encompass different groups of living organisms that capture energy through photosynthesis, converting inorganic substances into simple sugars.

"The bio-fuel concept is old," says Algatech's head of R&D, Dr. Amir Drory. "It started in the 60s and 70s when people started to look for alternatives. The area caught our attention a long time ago but this was not our major activity or research direction."

GreenFuel is manned by a thirty-person workforce developing algae bio-reactor systems that convert carbon dioxide or smokestack emissions into clean, renewable bio-fuels. The company was founded by Isaac Berzin, an Israeli industrial bio-engineer principally responsible for patenting GreenFuel's approach to efficiently propagating algae on an industrial scale.

GreenFuel and Algatech, a specialist in developing and commercialising micro-algae derived products for the neutraceutical and cosmeceutical industries, have been in discussion for at least a year, both sides recognising that a partnership in which one side provides the algae while the other provides technology for turning it into fuel is a complimentary fit. So complimentary, in fact, that in June the Israel-US Bi-National Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD) issued the parties a collective co-research grant of about 500,000 million pounds.

"This is a project where the technology has its own merit independent of the area," says BIRD's Executive Director Eitan Yudilevich. "From a technology point-of-view, there is no question that using algae to produce ethanol from CO2 is innovative. These guys have been doing work for more than a couple of years and already have investors that believe in the product."

The product, in this case, is a micro or single cell alga cultivated by Algatech using an optimisation and screening process. Comprised of lipids, starches and carbs -- nature's basic building blocks or the stuff we eat -- algae goes from starch or sugar form through fermentation to alcohol and protein where it can be eaten or burned.

The major tasks facing Algatech and GreenFuel are culturing the algae, optimising the process and keeping costs low compared with conventional fuel or other bio-fuels already on the market.

"We'll make it cost effective," GreenFuel CEO Cary Bullock said. "In the past you couldn't grow the algae fast enough to justify the cost of building the plant. But with growing improvements and weighing the costs of producing a refined fuel derived from putting a refinery next to a major carbon source, the benefit is dramatic. You knock out the costs of producing, importing, refining and shipping and you're simultaneously reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere."

Bullock says there is a fair amount of power plant land in Australia, the US and Western Europe ideal for bio-diesel and ethanol production and notes that ethanol blended gasoline necessitates little to no engine modification. With government incentives such as tax credit subsidies, accelerated depreciation and credits offered to blenders on a per-gallon of ethanol blended fuel basis, it would seem the CO2 derived algae bio-fuel is already seamless.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Bullock cautions, albeit optimistically. "It seems too easy because you intuit the process at a high level. But on a basic level, it's very hard. You're working with micro-organisms that not a huge body of research is available on."

This is part of the reason why GreenFuel and Algatech teamed up. Israel has been at the forefront of algae research for years, cultivating, developing and studying different strains of microalgae under ideal climate conditions. Algae can be grown in a wide range of regions, including temperate zones such as Europe, but the Negev desert setting is ideal.

Scientists on both fronts are eager to begin active collaboration expected to extend two to three years, and both Drory and Bullock estimate they'll have a product to market within the coming decade. Governments and industrialists in the US and Europe are already watching.

Will shortage be a future factor with which to contend?

"There are about 30,000 species of micro-algae - mostly unexplored," Drory summarises. "The reserve of micro-algae is huge - it's the same as fungi decades ago before they started looking into antibiotics. We won't face a shortage. We just have to invest money and effort to find very interesting micro-algae to work with."

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