Microalgae, one-fiftieth the size of a human hair, could revolutionize Sunbelt agriculture, boost farm profits, and help resolve many of the issues related to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO).
While the worldwide algae industry is in its infancy, on-farm production could offer new hope for farmers as increasing water and air quality issues get an even tighter grip on traditional agriculture.
The market for farm-raised algae includes biofuels, livestock and aquaculture feed, nutraceuticals, bioplastics, and others. Thousands of algae varieties exist. The two most popular include chlorella and nannochloropsis.
States with ample sunshine are considered good choices for algae production, including southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, west and south Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Technological advances could expand the algae option into other states.
“We see the production of algae biomass as an emerging crop in the future,” says Ben Cloud, president and chief operating officer of XL Renewables, Phoenix, Ariz. “Whether or not a farmer is interested today, they should keep an eye on it. I think algae will become a significant industry.”
Cloud co-invented XL Renewables’ patent-pending Super Trough System, an on-farm system of troughs designed for cost-effective, large-scale algae production and harvest.
He’s no stranger to agriculture — his farming roots include growing cotton, grain, and Medjool dates for 25 years in California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys and southwestern Arizona.
Today, Cloud is quick to share his math calculations on the potential profits from algae.
“A 160-acre algae farm utilizing the Super Trough System would have a capital cost range of $5 to $7 million, with annual algae yields of about 50 tons or more per acre, and significantly higher returns than any other crop,” he says.
“Gross income range with the Super Trough is about $25,000 an acre; operating costs would average about $15,000 an acre. The bottom line is $10,000 net per acre, which is very attractive.”
Implemented in 40-acre units, the Super Trough operates as an open or closed system, depending on the climate, algae specie, and application. Troughs are five-feet wide and 18 inches deep.
Algae numbers double in one to two days. A variable percentage is harvested daily.
Super Trough’s plastic liner under the water carries carbon dioxide gas (CO2) and nutrients the algae require to achieve significant yields. A proprietary final step increases the lipid content and overall yields.
The Super Trough is a water-miser, requiring about three acre-feet annually (about 977,000 gallons per acre), lower than for cotton and alfalfa in the West, Cloud says. The water requirement per unit of production is highly efficient. Algae grow rapidly in all water, even brackish and wastewater. Troughs can be installed on dead-level prime to marginal land.
At presstime XL Renewables was poised to announce a major sale of the Super Trough to China-based Biofuels HK Limited for a 2,880-acre algae farm at full build-out.
“They plan to produce 150,000 metric tons of algae biomass annually to generate about 16 million gallons of algae oil for the Chinese biofuel market,” Cloud says.
XL Renewables has algae-based projects underway in Virginia and Oklahoma and a system planned in Texas. The privately-held company also plans to install a 160-acre demonstration facility in Pinal County, Ariz., in 2010 for Phyco BioSciences, Inc., to showcase the technology.
Tweaking the Super Trough is the focus of XL Renewables’ Algae Development Center, a 1.5-acre algae farm located at Withrow Dairy at Casa Grande, Ariz.
“Our approach is generally a farmer’s approach — a low capital cost, highly productive, economical solution for large-scale algae production,” says George McNeely, the center’s operations manager.
Walking along the green, algae-laden troughs, he explains the Super Trough process. Algae move from one end of the trough to the other daily, consuming essential added carbon dioxide for growth. About 85 percent water, the algae are harvested on a continuous basis, de-watered, dried, and processed (pelletized). The operation has low labor requirements, McNeely says.
Mike Bellefeuille, a microbiologist and the center’s laboratory director, closely monitors the inoculation trough — an algae hatchery of sorts — checking daily with a microscope to determine algae health.
“Algae can grow in a day and all die in a day,” Bellefeuille emphasized. “A daily microscope check is required to search for contaminants and to determine the growth rate and nutrient levels. If you let it go for a day or two and contamination occurs, all the algae will die.”
Nannochloropsis, the salt-water species grown at the center, contains higher levels of Omega 3, which he says has health attributes.
The co-location of an algae farm alongside a CAFO is an ideal situation, but not a requirement, Cloud says. The algae-CAFO combination offers benefits to each operation. Omega 3-based algae can be used as a high quality, possibly lower-priced feed for livestock.
Bellefeuille cites studies that suggest feeding algae to cattle can reduce daily total feed requirements by about 10 percent and reduce E. coli.
“Omega 3 in the livestock diet improves birth rates and extends the animal’s life,” Bellefeuille says. “It is an essential anti-inflammatory oil that soothes the brain, joints, and other parts of the body.”
Omega oil levels are often out of balance in the human body, he says, with too much Omega 6 and too little Omega 3.
“There is a major push to bring this back into balance. Animals like to eat algae. Feeding algae with higher Omega 3 levels to livestock will produce healthier meat and milk for consumers.”
Inputs required for algae production include nutrients for fertilizers, CO2, and a water supply, Cloud says. That’s where the nearby CAFO offers a win-win fit.
“An algae farm can serve as a wastewater treatment facility for the CAFO by utilizing the manure and wastewater in the production of algae,” he says. “If we add a digester system to the CAFO, we can capture the methane gas, combust it in a CO2 generator, and generate the CO2 gas required to grow algae. The CAFO and algae farms become a loop.”