ANALYSIS, NUMBERS AND COMMENTARY -- The oil crisis is over folks, if BARD algae is right. You may return to your Hummer.

Biofuel Advance Research & Development (BARD) is claiming in Biofuels Digest that it can produce "8,571,428 gallon of algae oil per acre." This is from Biofuels Digest's "50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy."

BARD is in the process of constructing a commercial-scale algae system pilot plant in Pennsylvania that will produce algae biomass to be used to produce biodiesel, and other commercial products, reads the company's website. The pilot facility will begin by producing "43,070 gallons of algae oil/biodiesel per annum using only 6 modules of photo-bioreactors covering approximately 100 square feet." The oil is extracted via ultra sound and the algae are dewatered via centrifuge, said the company on its website. BARD doesn't rely on sunlight, but advanced lighting instead.

The website doesn't specify how much energy is used by the centrifuge, ultra sound and 24/7 algae lighting. After successful operation of the pilot plant the company will try to construct the 66 million gallon capacity algae cultivation, harvesting and extraction plant. 

"I have absolutely no doubt that photobioreactor technology can produce yields at this level – just requires the inputs of photons, CO2 and other trace nutrients," wrote Jim Lane, publisher and editor of Biofuels Digest, in an email. "Doing so economically is another matter – bioreactors have had a tough time so far."

The rest – or at least the cross-section of algae executives and researchers we contacted – take a different view. BARD would have to have a wildly disruptive technology to meet these volume claims. Most algae proponents say that algae, when it becomes mature, will yield 5,000 to 10,000 per acre.

Put another way, the U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day. Under BARD's plan, it would only take 35,557 acres of land filled with bioreactors to supply the U.S. with transportation fuel. That's 55.9 square miles, or a farm slightly smaller than Reno, Nev. (57 square miles). Some are more optimistic, theorizing that algae could yield 100,000 gallons of oil an acre of year, but Bard appears to be the only one in the millions bracket.

Dave Jones, the COO of LiveFuels, did some back of the napkin math and expressed some incredulity via email. "How does BARD expect to amplify the total sunlight by a factor of 40x" and "get nearly 4,000x more than first-order expectations?" he said.

According to an algae guru from NASA, also queried via email:

Hmm... According to John Benemann [an algae expert], with 'normal' systems we can expect at the very most 5,000 gal/acre/yr from open ponds. This either means that BARD is doing something very revolutionary or they are not telling us that their yield of 9+ million gal/acre will take them 1,886 years to produce! We have a real problem with light unless of course we use artificial light and then we have an energy problem or a photonic materials cost problem... These guys may have discovered a miracle organism, but I suspect they are selling snake oil rather than making algae oil.

Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of Origin Oil (OOIL.OB) commented: "Intensive industrial algae production may yield between 50-100,000 gals per hectare per year. These are not validated numbers, but they are more realistic than the numbers stated [by BARD]."

According to Bob Walsh, the CEO of Aurora Biofuels: "While it is hard to comment on another company's technology when you are not under the hood, I can say we believe the absolute theoretical maximum is 10,000 gal/acre/year. The white paper GreenFuel Technologies: A Case Study for Industrial Photosynthetic Energy Capture by Dr. Krassen Dimitrov, PhD, March 2007 goes through the calculations. 

"We also believe engineering systems [photo bioreactors and their ilk] will not deliver huge increases in productivity. Engineering has to drive out the typical costs of algae production but cannot double production. Our most recent scientific progress, which decreased photo inhibition increased our capability from the 2,000 gal/acre/year level to consistently producing above 4,000 gal/acre/year.  Our scientific team believes 6,000 gal/acre/year is an achievable target."

And Henrik Vibe Scheller, a professor and researcher in plant biochemistry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had this to say in an email:

The claim by BARD is almost 2000 times higher than what can be achieved in ponds. Other ideas I have seen use big mirrors or reflectors and then use light guides or optical fibres of some sort to get light into the reactor. The light has to be distributed throughout the tank to avoid the self-shielding effect of the algae themselves. With such a system there is no theoretical limit to the production per acre (or 100 sq feet) – it is just a matter of building the tank tall enough and harvesting the light from a large enough area outside of the reactor. The tank could easily be more than 10 m high. Why not 100 m? 

So it is quite possible to obtain the yields they talk about, but I don't think it is very relevant. The light would still have to be harvested from a much larger area. The problem with this type of system is that they are very expensive and it will take incredible steps in engineering to make it profitable. You never know what engineers can come up with; however you still need the area for light harvesting, so most people in the field believe that open ponds will be the way to go. And even that is quite expensive with current technology.

One really odd thing with the claims of BARD is that they say light will be supplied 24 hours. There is no way to store light, so the only way to do that would be to use another form of energy, e.g., electricity (which could be provided by wind energy and burning of residue from the production) to make light. But that is utterly inefficient. Perhaps if you have a nuclear plant with too much capacity it would make some sense, but then it would probably be much better to use the energy to use a biomass gasification and Fischer-Tropsch process to convert lignocellulosic biomass to liquid fuels.

So even though the yields per acre are possible in a photobioreactor, I still have the feeling that they are selling snake oil.

BARD says it received $40 million in funding from an undisclosed source according to an announcement made about a year ago.

CEO Surajit Khanna didn't tell us much but he wrote this in an email:

Why you or your other folks are comparing our numbers from our technology to open pond based algae technology? Completely bogus. We are not even talking here about open pond nor using sunlight. Because you all don't know what this means so you are challenging our figures.
[Whether] you or your people believe in our technology or not – how does that matter to BARD? We are not seeking any funding from you nor seeking any help. Why would the public care about your comments? We don't have to prove to you anything. Just for your information our data is based on our proven lab scale technology. Our scientist has been working on this technology since 1957. The same lab scale [has] been transformed to pilot-plant scale.

That 1957 date is interesting. That's 20 years before NREL began studying algae in the late 1970s. Much of NREL's research became the basis of today's work. And if their scientist has been working on this since 1957, he'll need to work fast to see the results of his efforts.
Michael Kanellos contributed to this report. Eric Wesoff is an analyst for GTM Research.