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The 2018 Algae Biomass Summit: Tracing the Evolution of the Algae Industry and Its New Trajectories Forward

Algae/Other Aquatic Organisms/Seaweed, Business News/Analysis, Co-Products, Feedstock, Feedstocks, Funding/Financing/Investing, History of Advanced Biofuels, Marketing/Markets and Sales, Opinions, Original Writing, Opinions Advanced Biofuels USA, Other Conferences/Events, Policy, Presentations, R & D Focus, Sustainability, Texas, Washington
November 17, 2018

by Jenna Bloxom* (Advanced Biofuels USA)  The kickoff of the 2018 Algae Biomass Summit in The Woodlands, TX, was awash with the same professional ambition, intellectual zeal, and indomitable sense of hope which likewise distinguished the opening ceremony of this very conference ten years ago—in many ways, however, that is where the similarities ended.

Historical Perspective

The 2008 Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle, WA, was an intimate affair, not even large enough to necessitate breakout sessions, and beyond the reverent whispers of angel investors and new genetically-modified strains, every presentation was squarely centered on contributing to The Holy Grail of algal fuels—which, of course, was simply algae biodiesel back then.

Neither the dreary weather nor the stark warnings of keynote speaker Vinod Khosla regarding the challenges of proving industrial viability could dampen the crowd’s determination of achieving the remarkable within an equally remarkable period of time.

By the 2010 meeting in Phoenix, things had drastically changed and expanded, both in terms of the sheer number and variability of participants as well as their vantage points with respect to possible avenues of profitability amid the increasingly diverse algae industry.

Energy security through algae-based fuels was still a focal point (with conference-favorite Admiral Dennis McGinn leading the battle cry for such), and it was clear that the R&D and market potential for a vast array of algal products already far surpassed what the Aquatic Species Program had ever envisioned.

And now, in 2018, the twelfth annual Algae Biomass Summit was almost unrecognizable from the second relative to the key players, the overarching themes, the anticipated arenas for success, and even the future goals.

Thankfully, at least one heated debate over the superiority of open pond systems versus photobioreactors broke out to instill a sense of continuity over the last decade.  Yet, that pervasive sense of buoyancy and anticipation ever-present at each Algae Biomass Summit was markedly less constituted by the previous, jubilant trust in the inevitability of R&D breakthroughs and more characterized by a cautious optimism dictated by real, commercial success stories.

The algae industry has faced its fair share of challenges and, a bit wizened and quite a bit wiser, it has evolved into something altogether more sophisticated—and more potent.

2018 Summit

This year’s four-day blitz extravaganza of all things algae featured dynamic keynote presentations and plenary sessions along with breakout panels divided into four main categories: biology; engineering and analysis; commercialization, finance, and policy; and, products and markets.

The mixture of academics, corporate representatives, and bureaucrats was infused with new blood among the familiar faces while the presence of household companies like Patagonia and Adidas hinted at just how far and wide the algae industry now reaches.

While it is impossible to convey or account for the richness of the knowledge-sharing which took place during the concurrent panels as well as the networking opportunities, three distinctive motifs emerged from the 2018 conference which demarcate critical hints to the trajectory of the industry and its future areas of growth and prosperity.  Those themes are summarized here.

1)  Down the Hatch, Not Down the Road

It was consumables, not combustibles, which reigned supreme at the 2018 Algae Biomass Summit.  The conference began with an emphatic dive into the world of nutraceuticals and food products, and the ensuing lessons of producing and marketing everything from phycocyanin for blue food dye to algae-based pasta, cooking oil, and vegan mayonnaise to Omega-3 supplements were highlighted in both the opening talks as well as the gastronomy served throughout the event.

As speaker after speaker discussed their hard-won pathways to competitive, sustainable traction in today’s markets, it became clear that the public is increasingly hungry for those green alternatives which have nothing to do with making their gas tanks full. 

But, fear not, bioenergy idealists—algae-based fuel may no longer be *the* topic en vogue among today’s algae experts, but it was certainly not overlooked.  Two representatives from ExxonMobil (the platinum sponsor of the Summit) took separate podiums to discuss the company’s aspirations to decrease emissions while creating a reliable, scalable algal biofuel product to the tune of 10,000 barrels per day by 2025.

News-sensation LanzaTech similarly vowed exceptional advancements in clean fuels after a recent Virgin Atlantic 747 flight from Orlando to London Gatwick demonstrated that jet fuel was merely one end-product from their microbes capable of fermenting industrial waste gas into ethanol.

Reliance Industries Ltd. came all the way from India to deliver encouraging news regarding life cycle assessment and scaling for algal biofuels via hydrothermal liquefaction, and Velocys was also on hand to promote their ambitious partnerships with Shell, British Airways, Red Rock Biofuels, and Bayou Fuels as they work to catalytically convert woody biomass and waste into intermediate distillates as well as renewable jet fuel.

Of course, beyond the corporate world, a plethora of fuels-focused research continues in academia and national labs, and like every year prior, the 2018 Summit featured interesting presentations and student posters offering valuable new data for boosting the chances of future algal fuels.

Beyond these impressive developments in the energy arena (clustered together on a few, select panels), though, the vast majority of the interest remained fixated on non-fuel commodities.  It was no accident that algae’s nutraceutical triumphs took precedence even before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony occurred, and achievements in the realms of inks, wastewater treatment, soil amendments, and aquaculture feed were also as ubiquitous as they were dominant during the entire conference.

At least for the foreseeable future, it was unmistakable that algae and cyanobacteria will be employed to change those markets with which consumers have a direct connection rather than being snuck into inelastic staples like fuel; this interesting and perhaps unexpected reality about the consumption of algae leads to the second theme palpable at this year’s Summit.

2) Green Everywhere — Except Around the Gills, If You Please

Regardless of their companies’ size, origins, or algal product, each corporate speaker preached the same two doctrines to achieving the baseline potential for market success:

1) The algae industry must make commodities that consumers already want or need, and

2) The public will not buy products simply because they are derived from algae.

To outsiders, such messages appear deceptively simple, yet they served as a powerful reminder to regular conference attendees of the countless number of promising algae companies bankrupted by those CEOs who believed that consumers, intrigued by the exotic nature of floating emerald orbs, would flock to buy algal curiosities on the basis of novelty alone.

Now armed with pragmatic experience towards realizing profitability, leaders in the algae industry took the stage to tout a new approach to finding their footing in emerging commercial sectors.  By allowing the public’s desires to shape product offerings (not the other way around) and carefully re-directing consumers’ attention away from algae sourcing, companies have found ways to penetrate existing, lucrative niches without having to directly fight against society’s association of algae with toxic red tides and smelly pond scum.

In an age of discerning consumerism, these ventures have been able to establish their brands with the reputation of being healthier and more sustainable alternatives for buyers seeking vegan or gluten-free foods, superior culinary oils, or even environmentally-friendly inks and animal nutrients.

The bottom line, however, is that the algal products still must taste just as delicious or function just as well as traditional products to co-exist, much less thrive. 

This practical and directive resolution towards market competitiveness was a stark and refreshing pivot from the business strategies held by many algae companies just a few years ago.

Serious considerations of policy and market opportunities were cavalierly dismissed in 2008 with respect to algae biofuels—despite the US biodiesel sector being on the cusp of disaster as the European Commission prepared to rule on dumping complaints the following year—because scientists-turned-businessmen were convinced that superior, green products would be welcomed by public and private sector buyers, sometimes even at a marginally higher cost.

After much blood, sludge, and tears, such dreams of immediate and seamless market success have been replaced with more constructive, comprehensive growth models which acknowledge that radically altering the public’s understanding of algal characteristics and/or uses may only be achieved by first proving their real-world applicability and benefits—all while avoiding any fishy aftertaste on the palette.

3) The Golden Ticket of Climate and the Carbon Factory

As consumer-minded algae companies take the slow and steady approach to the sweet rewards of widespread acceptance and utilization of algal products, groups focused on the service side of the economy are hoping to beat the odds and find a more direct means of success by way of the newly-emerging carbon paradigm.

There is an underlying yet sweeping excitement throughout the industry that the New Carbon Economy is algae’s “golden ticket” to re-defining the 21st century.   And why shouldn’t carbon-focused objectives launch algae to the frontlines of combating anthropocentric climate change? 

Beyond its profound potential to impact specific markets of food, feed, and fuel, algae’s range of proven capabilities also fall perfectly in line the goals of the New Carbon Economy—the decarbonization of existing economic and energy sectors; the commoditization of carbon via pricing mechanisms, taxes, and management strategies; and the creation of a carbon negative future through capture, storage, and conversion.

The alliance between algae and the nascent New Carbon Economy is easy, the obstacles to achieving mutually-beneficial success, however, are much more formidable.

There is vast uncertainty inherent to re-imagining carbon as anything but an externality, and green industries as well as government officials will be forced to overcome political and societal denials of climate change data, untried technological advancements, and chaotically immediate time frames in which the development and implementation of solutions must occur.

The Algae Biomass Summit’s invited speakers on the New Carbon Economy are quite aware (and vocal) about these challenges, but there is still a tangible and reciprocal yearning for the immense possibilities from such an interdependent partnership—the hard questions about how to execute these shared intentions will loom for future Summits (and lobbyists) to answer.

Conclusion

Overall, the 2018 Algae Biomass Summit embodied an acute transformation compared to its 2008 version in terms of foci and future directionality, but the slow evolution of the industry is certainly not following the more severe adaptations of natural selection.

Researchers and businesses still continue to chip away at the persistent problems which haunt the cost-effective production of algal biofuels, yet the notion of “co-products” has also progressed from a necessary evil to a heaven-sent opportunity for both turning a profit and reconstructing a new economy of sustainability.  Given the latent market power encompassed by algae, it seems all but assured that the 2028 Algae Biomass Summit will be quite the event.

Download Jenna Bloxom’s Presentation From Pipette Dream to Commercialization Powerhouse: Building Political Capital for Commercialization Successalong with the text of her presentation at the 2018 Algae Biomass Summit.

 

*Jenna Bloxom is a political scientist with fourteen years of combined professional and research experience specific to biofuel policies and technology, the politics of innovation, and natural resource management. With practical training in both the domestic and international arenas, Bloxom executed strategic public outreach in the private sector as well as for interest groups including ACORE in addition to a stint in academia teaching bioenergy policy graduate courses and publishing on renewables-based economic development in U.S. cities. As the first political scientist admitted to Colorado State University’s NSF-funded IGERT bioenergy program, Bloxom pursued an interdisciplinary Ph.D. by utilizing a scientific emphasis to study the viability of sustainable aviation fuel in conjunction with the intrinsic policy foundations of this emerging global production network.

Also see: Mired in Misère: Re-Launching Political Capital and Public Trust for Biofuels; Seven Strategies to Reinstate Our Industry’s Power in Washington, D.C. through Mainstreet, USA

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