Scientists today described technology that accelerates microalgae's ability to produce many different types of renewable oils for fuels, chemicals, foods and personal-care products within days using standard industrial fermentation. The presentation was part of the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society. The meeting, with 12,000 presentations on advances in science and other topics, continues here through Thursday.
Walter Rakitsky, Ph.D, explained that microalgae are the original oil producers on earth, and that all of the oil-producing machinery present in higher plants resides within these single-cell organisms. Solazyme's breakthrough biotechnology platform unlocks the power of microalgae, achieving over 80 percent oil within each individual cell at commercial scale while changing the triglyceride oil paradigm by their ability to tailor the oil profiles by carbon chain and saturation. The ability to produce multiple oils in a matter of days out of one plant location using standard industrial fermentation is a game-changer. Solazyme's patented microalgae strains have become the workhorses of a growing industry focused on producing commercial quantities of microalgal oil for energy and food applications. Rakitsky is with Solazyme, Inc., of South San Francisco, Calif., one of the largest and most successful of those companies, which in 2011 supplied 100 percent microalgal-derived advanced biofuel for the first U.S. passenger jetliner flight powered by advanced biofuel.
In a keynote talk at the ACS meeting, Rakitsky described Solazyme's technology platform that enables the company to produce multiple oils from heart-healthy high-oleic oils for food to oils that are tailored to have specific performance and functionality benefits in industry, such as safer dielectric fluids and oils that are the highest-value cuts of the barrel for advanced fuels. The benefits of these oils far surpass those of other oils that are currently available today.
"For the first time in history, we have unlocked the ability to completely design and tailor oils," he said. "This breakthrough allows us to create oils optimized for everything from high-performance jet and diesel fuel to renewable chemicals to skin-care products and heart-healthy food oils. These oils could replace or enhance the properties of oils derived from the world's three dominant sources: petroleum, plants and animals."
Producing custom-tailored oils starts with optimizing the algae to produce the right kind of oil, and from there, the flexibility of the fermentation platform really comes into play. Solazyme is able to produce all of these oils in one location simply by switching out the strain of microalgae they use, Rakitsky explained. Unlike other algal oil production processes, in which algae grow in open ponds, Solazyme grows microalgae in total darkness in the same kind of fermentation vats used to produce vinegar, medicines and scores of other products. Instead of sunlight, energy for the microalgae's growth comes from low-cost, plant-based sugars. This gives the company a completely consistent, repeatable industrial process to produce tailored oil at scale.
Sugar from traditional sources such as sugarcane and corn has advantages for growing microalgae, especially their abundance and relatively low cost, Rakitsky said. The company's first fit-for-purpose commercial-scale production plant is under construction with their partner Bunge next to a sugarcane mill in Brazil. Initial production capacity will be 110,000 tons of microalgal oil annually, expanding up to 330,700 tons. In addition, the company has a production agreement with ADM in Clinton, Iowa, for 22,000 tons of oil, expandable to 110,000 tons. Ultimately, cellulosic sources of sugars from non-food plants or plant waste materials, like grasses or corn stover, may take over as those technologies reach the right scale and cost structures.