Arizona would benefit from a strong new industry that provided more revenue than housing or hospitality, more fascination than sports, more food than agribusiness currently produces and more energy than has been produced in the history of the state. It would be nice too if the industry aligned with the current focus on biosciences. The industry should also employ engineers and scientists and other high salary professionals.
Arizona needs a new industry with a strong competitive advantage and a business model that is sustainable. Sustainability requires a green industry that is minimally consumptive―requiring little land, water or other resources. A sustainable industry should provide more energy than it consumes and provide a positive ecological footprint.
The business model should strengthen with growth and demonstrate a vitality and versatility to support a variety of niches. The industry should also integrate with the high technology associated with Arizona’s $600 million investment in genomics, medical information systems and biosciences.
The new algae industry might be called the “Green Gold Rush.” The analogy has validity because the attraction to gold mining is finding a free resource at one’s feet. Similarly, algae production takes nearly free resources: sunshine, waste water and desert and creates high value foods, fuels, nutraceuticals and medicines.
Arizona’s economy flourished for decades with the 4C’s: cattle, citrus, cotton and copper. More recently, electronics and semiconductors were added to the economy mix. However, resource constraints and global competition have taken a toll and key Arizona industries have been diminishing in employment, revenues and prospects.
Arizona’s migration from historical industries to new industries has occurred for a variety of reasons. Water availability, land and costs limit agribusiness. Heavy irrigation requirements, often three acre-feet, 36 inches, per crop, drive up costs. Many farmers must also pay for the energy to pump water from surface sources or most often from underground aquifers. Aquifer levels are declining requiring bigger pipes and stronger pumps. Heavy irrigation also imparts salts to the soil which reduces crop vitality.
The severe summer heat makes some crops impractical to grow and others develop poisonous toxins such as aflatoxin due to the heat. Population growth has consumed the prime farmland in and around cities which has benefiting the housing industry but damaged agribusiness. As communities expand, outlying land becomes increasingly more expensive as speculators take options on development.
New farmland becomes increasingly expensive as infrastructure such as laser leveling, pipelines and irrigation systems must be put in place in remote locations. New farmland tends to be more costly yet less productive than already developed land. Consequently, agribusiness becomes a continually less attractive investment. Currently, business models show that even gifted new land may not be profitable for agriculture due to the increasing capital costs necessary to manage a farm.
Many of Arizona’s agricultural products that historically had high value have become commodities. Early or late season crops that were possible to grow only in Arizona due to early spring warmth and late fall sunshine gave growers a competitive advantage. Now, many fruits and vegetables are imported year-round.
Copper, electronics and semi-conductors have felt the impact of global competition and especially cheap foreign labor, Figure 1. While each industry will continue in Arizona, the scale will reduce along with revenues and employment.
Figure 1. Arizona’s Old and New Industries
Unfortunately, some Arizona industries have not been sustainable because key resources were insufficient to sustain the industries. Arizona’s strategic resource is water.
Water availability and use hold the key to Arizona’s future. Failing sufficient clean water, Arizona cannot sustain its valuable tourism industry, industrial businesses or growing population. Only three sources of water are available:
1. Surface water – from the seven reservoirs and the Colorado River water that flows through the CAP aqueduct
2. Groundwater – from underground aquifers
3. Reuse water – from wastewater treatment plants
Surface and groundwater are largely committed under contract to existing users. Therefore, a new industry must be water efficient and able to use wastewater or grey, partially purified water.
Algae have the capacity to become a critical part of Arizona’s water strategy as algae can thrive in most kinds of wastewater such as city sewer water, industrially polluted water with heavy metal such as mining or even saline water. In addition to growing in mucky water, algae can be used to clean wastewater for reuse by citizens, industry or agriculture.
Agriculture cannot use saline water because the salt kills land plants by blocking water absorption from the roots. Algae have no root structures and some strains simply absorb water pollutants. Those pollutants can be separated from the algae during processing. The clean water has value and the metals can be collected and resold for reuse in industry.
Algae are robust, water-based plants that grow at an extremely high rate, often doubling or tripling their biomass in a single day. They need only sunshine, warm temperatures, impure water and modest nutrients to flourish. Algae grow so fast in commercial production that biomass harvest occurs daily or even continuously. Once the green biomass is removed from the water, the water and remaining nutrients may be recycled in a continuous growing loop.
Algae grow biomass quickly in a wide variety of conditions. Plants use the sun’s energy through photosynthesis to convert sunlight into chemical energy. They convert inorganic substances such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and other nutrients into organic matter such as green or blue-green biomass.
Algae feed on the greenhouse gas, CO2, and convert it to simple plant sugars and lots of O2, Figure 2. Water stores little dissolved CO2 naturally so cultivated algae need added CO2 for food. Photosynthesis takes in CO2, nutrients and water and produces the algae biomass with proteins, carbohydrates and lipids (oils). The process releases considerable oxygen to the atmosphere.
Figure 2. Algae Takes in CO2 and Produces O2
Even though algae represent only 0.5% of total global biomass by weight, algae produce about 40% of the net global production of oxygen on earth – approximately equal to all the forests and fields combined.Algae, often called microscopic phytoplankton, grow in most bodies of water and provide the foundation for nearly all marine food chains. Subtract algae and phytoplankton from the water column and fish, shellfish and other aquatic creatures cannot survive.
The Arizona algae industry has extraordinary potential worth billions of dollars because with advanced technologies, algae can produce a wide variety of high-value foods, medicines, nutraceuticals and biofuels as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Algae Products and Use
The lipids can be removed and made into biofuels such as jet fuel, JP-8. The remaining starches and proteins can be made into a limitless variety of human and animal foods and other coproducts. Since there are over 30,000 known algae strains and probably several million in nature the product and coproduct possibilities for this biomass are nearly limitless.
The harvested algae are extremely malleable in the sense that they can be stored in the same form as corn, wheat, rice or soy products. These include protein-rich milk, soft mash of any size, shape or texture, tortilla, cracker or flour. They can be made into texturized vegetable protein with added fiber or extruded to make additives for meats that improve moisture retention and increase protein while lowering fats.
Processing can match the form of nearly any food such as peanuts, pesto or protein bars. Fortunately, years of food processing for land-based plants that have an unappealing natural taste such as soybeans make it easy to add flavors, textures (fibers) and aromas.
Algae are currently used in hundreds of products such as beer, gum, cosmetics, nutraceuticals and medicines. Newly discovered or genetically engineered strains hold potential for mass production of vaccines, vitamins and other high-value nutrients.
Arizona stands alone in competitive advantage for algae production. No other state offers the unique combination of sunshine, warm weather with few frosts and low-cost flat, non-cropland. Arizona even has numerous saline aquifers with water that cannot support agriculture. Compared with cattle as a protein source, for example, algae need less than 0.001 the land and water.
Iowa won the non-sustainable corn ethanol sweepstakes and Iowa benefits from all the subsidies for corn and ethanol refining. Government subsidies for ethanol in Iowa amount to $640 for each citizen due to the “Presidential Caucus Effect.” Every presidential campaign begins in Iowa and every candidate supports larger corn ethanol subsidies.
However, the industry is not sustainable because Sierra Club calculates that the 44 new Iowa ethanol refineries will crash Iowa’s freshwater aquifers. An average ethanol refinery uses the water equivalent of about 5,000 households. In addition, 326,000 acres in Western Iowa use irrigated corn for ethanol, further depleting their groundwater. Irrigated corn requires about three acre-feet of water which translates to about 3,000 gallons of water to produce each gallon of ethanol. Several cities in Iowa also have found their groundwater contaminated and undrinkable due to Nitrites from cornfield fertilizer run-off.
Many states can grow corn but only a few can grow algae productively without the prohibitive costs of controlled environment buildings. Algae can be grown anywhere but are far less productive in many climates as they stop growing on cloudy days. The biomass also grows more slowly with cooler temperatures. Sustainable commercially scaled cultivation requires the climate and terrain associated specifically with Arizona and parts of Southern California. Other locates in the U.S. south may build production systems that produce only in the summer similar to existing land crops.
Algae are sustainable because growth requires only a tiny fraction of the inputs – energy, water, land, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides required for land-based plants like corn, citrus, cotton or cattle. The industry is ecologically positive because algae can take flue gasses from coal-fired power plants and sequester the CO2; use the excess heat for growth while producing tons of O2. Algae can remediate the nitrogen and other pollution from agriculture in groundwater and wastewater. Algae production is ecologically positive because it has minimal input needs and no waste products are produced to leach into the soil or fill waste dumps.
Arizona State University also offers a competitive advantage in the knowledge workers needed for the algae industry with excellent engineering and business schools and the only Laboratory for Algae and Biotechnology in the U.S.
Algae grow high-value biomass at speeds 30 to 100 times faster than land plants for one reason: they do not waste energy on structures like trunks, roots and leaves. Land plants have to withstand all the forces of nature – wind, weather and predators. Algae are water plants that are supported by the water in situ, in which they grow. For algae, it’s like being in a womb; all support systems are local and focus on growth and development.
In nature, algae’s greatest strength acts as a weakness. Fast growth shades new and prior plants from sun light. The underlying plants are shaded or receive too little light for photosynthesis and die. Cultivated algae require constant mixing to enable all the cells sufficient access to light.
Another unusual strength works against algae in natural habitats. The high protein composition, often around 50% of the biomass, means the plant begins breaking down faster than shrimp – which for practical purposes means immediately. Cultivated algae harvest occurs daily but algae in natural settings begin to rot quickly and give off the associated gasses and fragrances.
Consequently, people tend to think of algae based on its natural settings where it often presents itself as smelly green slime. In contrast, cultivated algae give off rich O2 which smells similar to walking through a redwood forest (without the trees).
Algae are infamous for causing problems in public waterways and in personal pools, ponds, pots and aquariums. Algae’s tolerance for a wide range of growing conditions means it demonstrates its resilience and fast growth in any moist or wet area that gets sunlight. As a result, algae research has focused nearly 10:1 on trying to kill, control or remove the productive green biomass versus cultivation. As a consequence, our survey research indicates 98% of people view algae as a pest.
Cultivated algae grow quickly and display continuous growth in sunshine where the biomass may double or triple daily. Algae slow their growth on cloudy days and go into respiration at night.
Algae grow similar to other plants and grow faster with increasing sun or heat. Algae grow within the boundaries of the “law of the minimum.”
Figure 4. Arizona State University Polytechnic Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, LARB
The plant grows quickly to the maximum it can until it hits a mineral, chemical, nutrient, light or temperature limitation. When the last of the limiting nutrient is absorbed, N for example, the plant stops growing until more of the minimum constraint becomes available.
The challenge for algae cultivation becomes insuring that sufficient nutrients are continuously available to the fast growing plant.
Algae differ widely in the levels of chemical, light and temperature parameters that limit their growth. For example, some algae flourish in low pH water (high acid) while others prefer high pH. Laboratory analysis can determine the concentrations of major nutrients and other growing parameters. Nutrient concentration ratios such as N/P can predict which algae strains should predominate under stable resource conditions.
Biomass composition varies by variety but may be 60:30, oil to foods, with about 10% waste. Therefore, it offers a solution to both fuel and food. The biomass is demoistured and stored in a convenient form such as a cake. The biomass does not require refrigeration and has a two-year self-life.
Algae are clean and healthy. The natural product has a hint of the fresh green smell of alfalfa and a soft organic taste. Several newly discovered varieties are odorless and tasteless and take on the smell and taste of the food they accompany.
Algae cultivation typically occurs in tanks or ponds, so no soil tilling, heavy equipment or pesticides and herbicides are required, although light tractors are common. Algae grow all over the Earth, so its range substantially exceeds corn. However, cultivated algae grow best in sunny, warm regions. Algae can grow where other crops cannot grow, such as deserts, mountains and rooftops.
Algae do not have the cellulosic trunk, tassel, leaves, roots and cob – the structural overhead – necessary for land plants like corn to withstand the land environment. Algae invest their growth energy in creating oils and proteins with light carbohydrates for the cell walls. An algae strain with 60% oils produces over 55% net oils that can be made into liquid fuel like high-powered jet fuel or biodiesel.
Biodiesels are typically about 33% more energy producing per unit than gasoline. In contrast, corn produces 98% non-energy producing cellulosic biomass called stover and yields less than 2% energy biomass. Most of the plant is waste in an energy sense and the stalks are left in the field. The corn energy biomass can be converted into a low-powered fuel that has only 64% the energy per unit as gasoline.
Some power companies such as Arizona Public Service have turned their problem with CO2 emissions into an opportunity. The Redhawk 1,040 megawatt power plant recycles greenhouse gases into renewable biofuels and uses algae to capture the CO2 gas emissions. The power plant exhaust is routed through algae growing systems and can eliminate part of their CO2 emissions during the day. Power plants run 24/7, so this presents only a partial solution.
Some power plants also use waste heat from power generation in the growing systems that increase the velocity of biomass growth. The only company supplying these systems currently, Greenfuels Technologies, associated with MIT, claims that using algae-fed CO2 and warm water from the power plant could potentially create annual yields of 8,000 gallons of biodiesel plus about 8,000 gallons of ethanol per acre. These production levels may be theoretically possible but are well beyond any current operational systems.
However, some power plants are operating their biofactories at a profit on a stand-alone basis. Reducing emissions may earn the power plants CO2 emissions credits and tax credits.
Compared with corn, algae offer substantial productivity, ecologic and economic advantages as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Algae Advantages Compared with Corn
Unfortunately, R&D on algae has taken a hiatus since 1995 when the U.S. Department of Energy decided to close down the Aquatic Species Project and algae research to focus on the politically expedient biofuel – corn ethanol. Since then, the majority government biofuels funding and subsidies has gone to support corn ethanol and ignored other renewable fuel sources.
The most pressing challenge lies in scaling up algae biofactories for continuous commercial production. Sparse R&D means the favored technologies have not been tested on a large scale. Fortunately, much of the necessary production knowledge comes from hydroponics and aquaculture where R&D has moved those technologies forward.
The challenges presented by algae production are nontrivial. Commercial biofactories producing the health food Spirulina currently operate in California, Hawaii, South Africa, Japan, India, Thailand and China where algae products are used for food. Focused R&D can have scaled algae production systems operating in Arizona within several years.
Algae industry: A new Arizona industry?
An algae industry would employ primarily high-technology knowledge workers because the business models substitute advanced technologies for labor, similar to wind turbines or solar collectors. Research in progress at ASU Polytechnic is examining ways to combine solar collectors and algae production. Quite possibly, the same land footprint could support wind turbines in the right location.
Early entrants to the algae industry will employ numerous engineers and scientists to solve the fascinating technical challenges for large scale production. For example, algae production business models often include labs for selecting productive strains and monitoring strain vitality and quality in the growing systems. Fortunately, Arizona is blessed with many capable technical brains who are no longer employed in electronics and semiconductors.
The algae industry is unlikely to match the 12,000 jobs created in the existing Arizona bioscience industry. Algae production will use relatively few high-tech managers orchestrating largely automated growing and harvesting systems. Food, fuel and coproduct manufacture and refining will employ a substantial number of people. Salaries will probably be around the current bioscience levels, averaging about $50,000.
The revenue generated from an algae industry could exceed the other bioscience niches. It is too early to predict which algae products will produce the most revenue but several appear very promising, including:
Liquefied energy – biodiesel, jet fuel, ethanol or methanol
Foods – high protein replacement for grains such as wheat, corn and soybeans
Health foods – Spirulina, vitamins, special nutrients
Medicines – nutraceuticals, vaccines and high-value medicines
The algae industry business models are very attractive because with relatively modest investments, high value products are possible that can be sold for substantial profits. However, Arizona has seen failed attempts before at building industries around new crops such as guayule, a weed that can be made into a rubber product, and jojoba, a bean than produces oil. Similarly, early attempts at new growing systems such as hydroponics never lived up to their hype.
Algae businesses will have to prove their ability to scale-up to commercial production levels and also show they can sustain high production to take advantage of Arizona’s 360 days of sunshine. The initial cultivated algae production systems will need to be a public and private partnerships to share the risks associated with early R&D.
The combination of biofuels, foods, nutraceuticals and medicines all delivered from a renewable resource that is ecologically positive means Arizona can look forward to a strong new industry. Some may call this the green gold rush because the products and coproducts offer such high value.
The path to build this exciting and high value industry begins with a first step: focused R&D on sustainable scaled algae production systems.
Mark R. Edwards has taught food marketing and entrepreneurship in the Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness at Arizona State University Polytechnic for more than 30 years. This article is derived from his recent book “Biowar I: Why Battles over Food and Fuel Lead to World Hunger.” Biowar I algae as a case study to illustrate the foolish waste associated with the corn ethanol industry.