NREL’s Aquatic Species Program concluded that open ponds are the optimal economic design and used open ponds for its experiments and economic models.

Algae can be grown in natural or man-made ponds. The advantage is cost: open pond growth requires less capital equipment than other techniques. The disadvantage comes in quality control. Raceway ponds, shaped like horse tracks, for growing algae for human consumption are not yet economical for fuel production (while nutraceutical algae can sell for several thousand dollars a ton).

Raceway ponds, usually lined with plastic or cement, are about 20 to 35 cm deep to ensure adequate exposure to sunlight. Paddlewheels provide motive force and keep the algae suspended in the water. The ponds are supplied with water and nutrients, and mature algae are continuously removed at one end.

NREL’s Aquatic Species Program concluded that open ponds are the optimal economic design and used open ponds for its experiments and economic models. The productivity of raceways is much higher than unmixed algae ponds.

Raceway Pond (Diagram From NRELOpen Pond Algae Farmers)

Here is a list of open pond algae players:


Aquatic Energy looks to develop, construct and operate open pond algae farms in the Louisiana Gulf area, converting algal oils into biofuel.

Aquaflow Bionomics looks to produce biofuel from wild algae harvested from open-air environments. The firm harvests algae from the settling ponds of effluent management systems and other nutrient-rich water, typical of industries that produce a waste stream including the dairy, meat and paper industries. Aquaflow has a relationship with Boeing, targets jet-fuel production, and are trying to raise capital.

Aurora Biofuels is VC funded with more than $23 million from Oak Investment Partners, Noventi Ventures, and Gabriel Venture Partners. They are using open ponds and selected strains of algae in a pilot project in Florida.

Aurora is looking to use wastewater treatment models and is experimenting with drying algae with a “wet extraction” method. Wet extraction has the potential to eliminate or reduce the costly and energy-consuming de-watering step.

Aurora Biofuels isolates naturally-occurring algae strains with strong fuel-producing properties, ostensibly producing biodiesel with greater yields and lower costs than existing production methods.

According to Matt Caspari, Aurora’s VP of Business Development, the biggest challenges are in selecting the feedstock and sites. The company has patents pending on algae growth, harvesting, oil extraction and conversion to biodiesel.

Aurora expects to have commercial-scale facilities in 2012.

Carbon Capture Corp. operates open algae ponds with a total capacity of 8 million gallons located on a 40-acre Algae Research Center, part of a 326-acre R&D facility in Imperial Valley, California.

Cellana, a JV created by algae-to-biofuel startup HR Biopetroleum and Shell Oil, is building an open-pond demo facility in Hawaii. Cellena is developing a process for extracting algae oil without using chemicals, drying or an oil press.

General Atomics developing improved processes for growing and extracting oil from algae in open ponds.

Infinifuel Biodiesel is developing algae ponds in Nevada.

Ingrepo plans to build open pond algae production facilities in Malaysia.

Kai BioEnergy has a continuous, open system that produces bio crude oil from microalgae. The technology overcomes the risk of algae contamination in open systems and allows for high yield growth of a dominant species.

Kent BioEnergy develops open ponds algae farms with extensive experience in aquaculture and licenses from Clemson University. The company has operations in southern California, including a 160-acre process development/production facility south of Palm Springs.

The Glamour of the Algae Harvest at Kent BioEnergy

Kent Bio Energy’s Development Facility in Southern California

LiveFuels of San Carlos, Calif. received $10 million in funding from The Quercus Trust in 2007 and looks to continue the Aquatic Species Program’s research in using open-pond algae systems to develop biofuel. The firm is trying to develop green crude to be integrated into the nation’s existing refinery infrastructure. The firm initially planned to grow algae in ponds at the Salton Sea, an inland saline lake in Southern California, but has shifted to Texas.

David Jones, LiveFuel’s COO spoke at a recent algae summit and revisited common themes in stating, “The biggest challenge is scale and scope.” And “figuring out how to manage the water and recycling wastewater.

LiveFuels is focused on wild type algae, not GMO algae although they have “come 180 degrees on that.

PetroAlgae of Melbourne, Fla. has 110 employees and plans to complete a 20-acre demonstration algae farm by the end of the year according to Fred Tennant, the firm’s VP of business development. They have patented natural strains and according to Tennant, “are making tremendous strides towards a commercially viable solution.

The company’s business model is to develop turnkey algae farms that they will license to investors with a stress on scalability and cost.

PetroSun (PINKSHEETS: PSUD) of Scottsdale, Ariz. is looking to develop an algae farm network of 1,100 acres of saltwater ponds. They claim the ponds will produce 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million pounds of biomass per year. PetroSun has a partnership with Science Applications International on algae-to-jet fuel and has been working to convert catfish ponds to algae ponds in the Southeastern U.S. They have numerous DOE grant applications in process.

Tom Konrad of Alt Energy Stocks writes: “Even if Petrosun does execute on its algae farms, will there be any first mover advantage? It seems unlikely to me; growing algae in open saltwater ponds will depend on access to suitable land near coastlines... later entrants who can acquire suitable land should be able to produce algae just as efficiently as Petrosun, since they do not seem to have any special technology or expertise. After all, the company is simply an unsuccessful oil exploration company with an algae farm division.”

Aerial View of PetroSun’s Texas-Based Algae Farms


Seambiotic, an Israeli firm, uses raceway/paddle-wheel open-pond algae cultivation growth fed by C02 flue-gas from a nearby IEC power plant. The company uses genetic optimization and has teamed up with Inventure Chemical to turn the algae into fuel.

Seambiotic’s Raceway Open Ponds

XL Renewables, formerly XL Dairy Group, of Phoenix, Arizona, is developing an algal production system using dairy waste streams and attempting to integrate and co-locate dairy production, algal production, and biorefineries producing ethanol and biodiesel.

XL is focused on biomass production more than biofuels – using a semi-closed system based on a farming model and a farming mentality – making use of agricultural and irrigation components. Their trough system uses a greenhouse-type process to cultivate algae in 18-inch deep, 1,250-foot long plastic-lined troughs with aeration and lighting integrated along the six-foot wide troughs.

A plastic cover (also called plastic mulch) can extend their season from six months to 240 days. They apply and retrieve the solar cover with low-hp tractors resulting in a low labor cost – one man and one implement can service 160 acres at a claimed capital cost of $35K/acre.

Oil extraction is not necessary in XL’s case as it wants to produce high omega-oil content algae biomass for animal feeds. Ben Cloud, XL’s COO, believes that we are starting to see protein shortages and that the consumption of soybeans and corn has created an imbalance in our diet which algae omegas can mitigate.

Harvesting is accomplished via a simple flocculation system in a weir tank. The design is expected to provide an annual algae yield of 300 dry tons per acre

XL Renewables is developing a 400-acre integrated biorefinery in Westen Arizona that combines a dairy operation with a biofuels plant to produce ethanol, biodiesel, milk, animal feed and compost fertilizer. The biorefinery would use the dairy manure and other waste streams to provide all of the power, heat and steam requirements of the project.

Diversified Energy Corp. has licensed this technology from XL Renewables under the name Simgae for simple algae.

This is a small excerpt from the April issue of the Greentech Innovations Report, which dives deep into the algae pond. You can subscribe to it here.