All natural pond scum to the rescue

Shell and a Hawaiian start-up announce plans to make biofuel from algae, but take pains to note that genetic modification will not be involved. Why?

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 11, 2007 6:45PM (EST)

An interesting declaration tucked away in a press release announcing a joint venture between Shell and HR Biopetroleum, an algae-to-biofuel start-up based in Hawaii (italics mine):

The facility will grow only non-modified, marine microalgae species...

The Frequently Asked Question file on HR Biopetroleum's Web site is even more specific:

Will genetically modified microalgae be used?

A. No. HRBP will not use genetically modified microalgae in Hawaii.

How the World Works is more accustomed to seeing press releases from biofuel start-ups touting the wonders of genetic modification than explicitly disavowing any genomic tinkering. But there are some good economic reasons why a collaboration between a Hawaiian start-up and a European oil company might be particular about such matters. Hawaii's cultivation of genetically modified papaya resulted in the loss of Japan as major export market. Shell also plans to sell the biodiesel produced by HR Biopetroleum in Europe, where suspicion of all things genetically modified reigns across the land.

For such concerns to even be an issue, however, requires that the joint venture, dubbed Cellana, succeeds in producing meaningful quantities of cost-competitive biofuel. And that's no gimme. Few fantasies tickle the fancy of a biofuel geek more than the thought of carbon-dioxide-chomping algae generating gazillions of gallons of transportation fuel, but nobody's gotten it to work without a hitch quite yet. So slot this latest announcement in there with all those cellulosic technology breakthroughs that are waiting around the bend.

HR Biopetroleum does make the claim that it "has already achieved a production rate close to the target figure for commercial production," and that it is "the only algal biofuels company to have grown sustained, commercial production of algae monocultures for more than two years without interruption." This claim appears to be connected to its license to use proprietary algae farming techniques developed by Hawaii's Mera Pharmaceuticals, a company that specializes in the production of "nutraceuticals" from algae.

Judging by Mera's Web site, the company's chief product is astaxanthin, a carotenoid often employed as a food coloring or food dye. Incorporated into fish feed, astaxanthin is commonly used by salmon farmers to give their fish that attractive red color.

Incidentally, lobsters turn red when cooked because heat breaks down the bonds between the astaxanthin in the shell and proteins that change it from its "free" red color to green or blue.

I suspect that readers may not have been wondering why lobsters turn red when cooked when they originally followed a link referencing new developments in the world of algae-derived biodiesel. The management apologizes for this distraction. But as someone who enjoys both lobster and wild salmon and hopes to one day be transported in a vehicle fueled by algae, I take a strange comfort in how these jigsaw pieces fit together. Serendipity works in mysterious ways. Artificially colored salmon is a symbol of the corruption afflicting industrial food production, but if the process of generating commercial quantities of astaxanthin pigment results in the perfection of a technology that assists in the creation of sustainable biofuel, I'm not complaining.

UPDATE: I e-mailed HR Biopetroleum asking whether the EU market's distaste for GMOs played a role in the company's explicit refusal to consider genetically modified algae. I received the following unsigned response.

It has to do with the perception, however remote the possibility, that GMO algae might have an undesirable impact on the immediate environment. The first and most important problem is getting the costs of production down. Later, it is likely that improved organisms will be cultivated. I think, however, that it may not be necessary that the improvements require the insertion of foreign genetic material.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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