• Feb 2, 2011



With the promise of 100 times as much fuel per acre than traditional sources like corn and soy, algae biofuel was thought to be the answer to biofuels. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy even gave out $24 million for research on this new technology, including $9 million to Cellana. Who is Cellana? It's a joint venture between Shell Oil and HR Biopetroleum.

Now, however, Shell doesn't see a commercial future in algae biofuel and has ended its partnership with HR BioPetroleum, leaving the company with no other avenues of research in this area. Shell's official response:

In keeping with Shell's portfolio approach to the research, development and commercialization of advanced biofuels, this decision will allow Shell to focus on other options that have shown a better fit with Shell's biofuel portfolio and strategy.

While algae biofuel may be out, Shell has many other biofuel endeavors that it is pursuing including:

  • Cosan partnership in Brazil for the "production of ethanol, sugar and power, and the supply, distribution and retail of transportation fuels."
  • Iogen Energy investment for developing "processing technology that enables ethanol to be made from straw using enzymes."
  • Codexis joint technology program to "develop more powerful enzymes for faster conversion of biomass to ethanol and other fuels."
  • Virent Energy Systems joint technology program to "convert plant sugars directly into a range of high performance liquid transport fuels."
With these investments, as well as a wide range of R&D agreements at many universities throughout the world, Shell is hedging its bets on the biofuel future.

[Source: Renewable Energy World via TreeHugger]



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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 22 Comments
      • 3 Years Ago
      It's not that Shell is abandoning the project. They got bought out, by the other stakeholders. And they're still going to be supporting some benefits for the new - still operational - company.

      "In support of the transition, Shell agreed to provide short-term funding to advance and focus the algae technology development program, which is also supported by corporate and project stakeholders, including the University of Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric Co., Maui Electric Co., the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts consortium, and the U.S DOE.

      According to HRBP CEO Ed Shonsey, the divestment of Shell’s stake in Cellana presents HRBP several opportunities to commercialize its algal technology.

      “First, it enables us to pursue independent licensing strategies,” Shonsey said. “Second, we’ll be able to move more quickly in broadening access to our portfolio and, third, it underscores our commitment to a wide range of choices, not only for the fuel, but also for the byproducts such as feed, chemicals, cosmetics and nutrition, which we weren’t at liberty to do before.”

      Initially, Shell’s role in the Cellana joint venture, according to Shonsey, was to develop algal extraction technology, and build and manage the demonstration facility in Kona. HRBP, meanwhile, had been focused on developing a pipeline of commercial algae facilities, according to Shonsey. “We’ve done that, and now we’re bringing that all together so that we can act more quickly and have greater flexibility,” he said."

      http://www.biodieselmagazine.com/articles/7561/hr-biopetroleum-acquires-shell-stake-in-cellana

      Shell's investment helped to get the JV going. Now, the JV doesn't need Shell, so Shell is divesting its ownership to allow the JV to pursue more options. The JV is getting to keep all of the material investment that Shell made, in addition to the tech that was developed.

      " To date, it is one of the most advanced operational demonstration facilities among algae-to-biofuel organizations and companies in the United States.

      ‘‘The acquisition of Cellana represents a significant opportunity for HRBP and its corporate and project stakeholders, including the University of Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric Company, Maui Electric Company, the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts consortium, the U.S. Department of Energy and others,’’ said Ed Shonsey, HRBP CEO."

      http://americanfuels.blogspot.com/2011/01/hr-biopetroleum-to-acquire-shells.html

      Shell helped create a very advanced and viable algae research center. Now, that center is strong enough to stand on their own, and have bought out Shell's stake.

      Kudos to the peeps at HR BioPetroleum - keep up the successful work!
      • 3 Years Ago
      "Wrong. Ethanol emits about the same amount of NOX as gasoline.

      ...but, since you get worse mileage, you have to burn more ethanol than gasoline to go the same distance. So the net effect of burning ethanol is an increase in NOX emissions."

      Everything I've seen suggest that NOX production is less with Ethanol. As Ethanol decreases combustion temperatures the NOX emissions drop.

      Unless you're reading the studies that are based on faulty ECUs running in open loop reducing FE, increasing emissions, and running lean conditions which burn hotter therefore generating more NOX. Which probably do exist.

      Those numbers are over a period, do you also think that Ethanol emits less CO2 yet because it gets worse mileage that it emits more CO2 over time? That is a fallacy, the output is based on a length of time/distance not a per gallon amount.

      And the big deadly emission with Ethanol is acetaldehyde emissions are much higher, although carcinogens are greatly reduced. The only study I saw using that factor was the E85 usage in LA which actually sourced Pimental's work. The one that claimed that E85 use would increase deaths in the US by 100 or so people. It was a study of just the LA area but it estimated numbers for the US aswell if I remember correctly. Are we discussing the same information?
      • 3 Years Ago
      This is not the end of algae-based biofuels, this is a major blow to lipid-based algae biofuels that require "refinement" (separation of algae from fuel). I suspect nothing will come of lipid-based biofuels until there is a refinement breakthrough.

      Algae to ethanol still works. It still requires no fresh water, no harvesting, no refinement (other than hydrous to anhydrous), and no arable land. When algae to ethanol is shot down, it will be time to declare that algae fuels are dead. I hope that doesn't happen anytime soon. Imo, Valero is the company you have to watch. The pride themselves on being a domestic energy company and they fund a lot of developments that are actually producing fuel at reasonable costs. They are also invested in retail downstream which means they might actually sell ethanol at their stations if they can produce it domestically.

      I think algae to biobutanol is still in play as well.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Where do you get refinement is the problem?

        Almost certainly the problem is Algae production, which is the same problem for Algae ethanol.

        Algae is great in the lab, but none scales to production at marketable cost.

      • 3 Years Ago
      One question I've had about algae is, if we sequester CO2, can we use it to stimulate algae growth? And is anyone working on this?
        • 3 Years Ago
        yes the Chinese are working on using CO2 from coal to promote algae growth for fuel
        • 3 Years Ago
        DasBoese - Yes, all it is doing is doubling how much energy is produced from CO2 that is taken out of the ground and released into the atmosphere.

        Sure, it is better to just leave that CO2 in the ground, I agree. But we aren't there yet.

        Meanwhile, if there is a technology that will increase the energy we get per unit of CO2 that we already take out of the ground, I'm all for it. I don't see solar-powered 747's, or solar powered long-haul trucks replacing the current fleet anytime soon. So we better figure out how to use less of what we are currently extracting from the ground to travel further.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Running exhaust from fossil-fueled power sources through algae does nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, it only adds an additional cycle for the carbon to through before it is ultimately released into the atmosphere.

        Unless you sequester the algae biomass underground, but I haven't heard of any concrete plans for this (and it would be really pointless since we could simply stop pumping stuff out of the ground in the first place)

        If you use it as fuel, you're still burning fossil carbon... you're just doing it twice.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I'm not sure about sequestering, exactly, but there has been at least one research effort in the U.S. to funnel exhaust from a power plant through a set of algae-infused tubes, and it sounded like it worked. I'm sure some CO2 went into the atmosphere, though.

        Plants use sunlight in combination with CO2, and it's ultimately more efficient to just use solar power directly. I ran some numbers a few years ago, and it looked to me like you'd need about 5 times as much land area to generate the same amount of energy with algae (under optimal conditions) as you get from an array of standard (~15% efficiency) photovoltaic cells -- even up in Minnesota where I live.

        I think we will need carbon-based liquid fuels for a long time to come, so I hope algae research continues, but I think solar is the way to go for people who can deal with its quirks. Ultimately, I hope we'll find a man-made way to use sunlight to convert CO2 back into carbon and oxygen. There was some research being done on that front at Sandia National Labs a years or two go, and I hope it continues as well.
      • 3 Years Ago
      The Algae fuel systems are tantalyzing . . . but the numbers often don't seem to work. You need massive amounts of equipment to create relatively minor amounts of fuel.

      The idea definitely works . . . but the economics don't.

      That is my best understanding of it.
        • 3 Years Ago
        There's still improvements that can be made with engineering of the algae.

        This recent PR was pretty promising:

        "Dr. Tasios Melis of UC Berkeley, a pre-eminent researcher in the field of Photobiological Hydrogen Production, will be providing an overview of his invention disclosing methods and compositions to minimize the chlorophyll antenna size of photosynthesis by decreasing the expression of the novel TLA1 gene, thereby improving solar conversion efficiencies and photosynthetic productivity in plants and algae."

        http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/improving-photosynthesis-for-hydrogen-and-fuels-production-through-genetic-optimization-of-algae

        I know he's a H2 researcher, but before he's universally condemned, his research is applicable to all sorts of biofuel production, as well as pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals.
      • 3 Years Ago
      "Of course, given their multi-billion dollar annual profits, it seems rather like a lot of effort for a piddling 24 million. So maybe they really did think it would work, only to fail badly."

      1. The JV got nine million dollars, not 24 million.

      2. The effort didn't fail, it was so successful they've bought out Shell's stake so they can be more independent. They're also going to play a large role in making Hawaii less dependent on imported petroleum for electricity.


      "The acquisition of Cellana represents a significant opportunity for HRBP and its corporate and project stakeholders," said Ed Shonsey, chief executive officer. "We will continue to operate Cellana's Kona demonstration facility and to continuously improve the economics for growing marine algae using HRBP's patented process."

      "Cellana's first commercial project will be a biofuel plant that the company plans to build next to Maui Electric Co.'s Maalaea Power Plant. Biodiesel made from algae at the Cellana facility will be burned at the plant to generate electricity.

      Shonsey said the company has received all the permits it needs to build the processing facility, and could begin producing algae-based biofuel in two to three years.

      "We've been working with Shell for a while, and we'd like to thank the company for its participation over the last few years and its willingness to enable us to do this," Shonsey said."

      Shell's involvement in the joint venture was mainly in developing the technology used to extract the oil from the algae, he said.

      HR BioPetroleum plans to build the Maalaea biodiesel facility in two or three phases, Shonsey said. When complete, it should be able to produce about half of the fuel burned at the 212-megawatt power plant, Maui's largest."

      http://www.oilgae.com/club/users/Natalia/blogs/1079
      • 3 Years Ago
      A shell game. A few pennies to "pursue" algae and the rest are delaying tactics, a pittance designed to distract and appease, while continuing business as usual.

      Just offer E85 at every Shell gas station. Make your pumps methanol compliant and be ready to offer M85 too. Support the Open Fuel Standards Act becoming law, with a huge advertising campaign. THAT would make a difference.

      • 3 Years Ago
      At least they'll finally stop those obnoxious commercials on PBS. We know they're horse hockey, it's about time they gave it up.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I am not surprised that Shell has come to a similar conclusion that I did with a rough calculation of the energy flows involved in producing oil from algae. Any algae growing system is only 2-dimensional and is totally dependent on sunlight flux per square meter, per day and that is not a lot compared to the worlds energy needs . Also, even in a high sun exposure location, biological efficiency is never going to be more than a few percent when converting that light into total biomass, let alone the oil fraction of the algal cell.

      While there are species that can produce large amounts of oils, that requires a sterile growing system, which discounts open or sewage ponds. so the economics becomes even worse.

      It is disappointing, however, that Shell appears to be focusing on ethanol as a transport fuel. It has been fairly well established that ethanol production requires about as much energy input to produce it as the energy received when it is combusted.

      Even if the feedstock is a waste product and not taking valuable cropping land from food supply, the commercial reality is that ethanol producing organisms will not get beyond 3 or 4 percent ethanol per volume of water, which means a high cost of extraction as the final fuel must be 99% ethanol or better. In addition the fermentation creates a good deal of heat, so the tanks must be cooled incurring yet more costs.

      Then comes storage and problems of having the fuel in automobile tanks that are not used every day as ethanol quickly absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere.

      Finally since ethanol contains an oxygen atom, the combustion of it in such an inefficient device as an automobile engine means a considerably higher output of NOX molecules than fossil fuel. There has already been published, calculations of the increase in deaths and adverse human lung health expected for switching to a high ethanol based transport fuel.
        • 1 Day Ago
        "Ethanol emits significantly less NOX."

        Wrong. Ethanol emits about the same amount of NOX as gasoline.

        ...but, since you get worse mileage, you have to burn more ethanol than gasoline to go the same distance. So the net effect of burning ethanol is an increase in NOX emissions.
        • 1 Day Ago
        "It has been fairly well established that ethanol production requires about as much energy input to produce it as the energy received when it is combusted."

        Even the most unfriendly studies that are sound show a 30% energy gain, usually dismissed as an energy return on investment of "only" 1.3. If I could be guaranteed a financial return on investment of 30%, I'd retire.

        Furthermore, not all energy is alike. The worst and most important to get off of is petroleum, because it crashes the economy and funds pro-terrorist extremism. And in the far more geo-strategically relevant matter of petroleum in vs. ethanol out, you get at least 10 gallons of ethanol for each gallon of petroleum expended to make it, and even 20.

        "Finally since ethanol contains an oxygen atom, the combustion of it in such an inefficient device as an automobile engine means a considerably higher output of NOX molecules than fossil fuel."

        Wrong. Ethanol emits significantly less NOX.

        More importantly, NOX is a problem when it reacts in mid-air to fuel in vapor form, which vapor comes either from imperfect combustion (via the tailpipe) or leakage during refueling. And ethanol vapor is less than a tenth as reactive to NOX as gasoline vapor.
        • 1 Day Ago
        I wonder how much excess heat. Could something like cyclone engines be used to convert that waste heat into electricity?
        • 1 Day Ago
        I would suggest you try reading the scientific literature rather than industry propaganda.
      • 3 Years Ago
      That does seem to be the impression, that they formed a research partnership just to get a 24 million dollar grant, then dissolved the partnership when the money ran out.

      Of course, given their multi-billion dollar annual profits, it seems rather like a lot of effort for a piddling 24 million. So maybe they really did think it would work, only to fail badly. The big question is: Did they put any of their own money into this research, and if so, how much?
      • 3 Years Ago
      Whatever happened to piggy-backing algae production at sewage treatment plants?
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