Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Algae: Another way to grow edible oils

Michael Kanellos, for News.com
Published: January 25, 2008
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 News.com. 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."

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.

Click on the Title to view the complete CNET article.

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