There has been a lot of negative talk about companies using corn to produce biofuels, but don’t paint Aurora Biofuels with that brush. The company is offering an attractive alternative: converting carbon dioxide–a greenhouse gas–into biodiesel while growing in sea water. The company is using a genetically modified algae developed at the University of California at Berkeley to efficiently produce biodiesel using CO2 as the feedstock. The Aurora claims the technology, developed by microbial biology professor Tasios Melis, can create biodiesel fuel with yields that are 125 times higher and have 50 percent lower costs than current production methods. One can only wonder if those higher yields are based on somewhat modest benchmark production data.
Definitely worth paying attention, however, to is the recent announcement by Aurora that it has completed an 18 month demonstration of its process for making biodiesel, and further, that it could produce this biodiesel for an estimated $50 per barrel at scale. That would be very attractive. And Aurora’s new CEO, Robert Walsh, a recent high level Shell Oil Company production executive, is focused on developing a first commercial scale 50 acre pond system for Aurora’s algae that will produce 300,000 gallons per year of biodiesel by 2012. According to Aurora, its special algae can use waste CO2 from electric utilities, cement plants and the like, converting 40 lbs. of CO2 into one gallon of biodiesel fuel with an energy content of 130-140,000 Btu/gal. And get this! According to the company, the CO2 used in the system does not have to be cleaned. In fact, the toxic gases NOx (nitrous oxides) and SOx (sulfur oxides) are actually nutrients that enhance algae growth!
From its name you might think the company is located in Colorado, but the headquarters is in Alameda, California, with some operations in Florida. According to the company’s web site, backers include Gabriel Venture Partners, Noventi, Oak Investment Partners (and angel investors include Auttomatic CEO Toni Schneider). No partners have been announced so far, and don’t ask about revenues-there aren’t any yet. Aurora seems to have a heavy component of engineering as a part of its production technology, which is probably a very good thing. With all the various algae players out there right now the competition among them will be interesting to watch.