ALGAE companies can't seem to get enough attention of late. California-based Sapphire Energy has recently secured an undisclosed dollop of cash from Monsanto, the world's biggest producer of genetically modified seeds. Better known for its efforts to develop drop-in replacements for petrol, diesel, or jet fuel, the start-up will work with Monsanto to identify algal genes that could be used to increase yields and resistance of traditional crops such as maize, cotton or soybeans.
Meanwhile, the Australian government’s Low Emissions Energy Development fund has given another Californian firm, Aurora Algae, a grant to build a plant in an arid, sun-drenched coastal region of Western Australia. Rather than grow their algae indoors by feeding it sugar (as some other producers do), Aurora grows its algae in outdoor brine ponds 0.4 hectares (one acre) each. By using seawater, Aurora's ponds need not tap Australia's scarce freshwater.
According to Greg Bafalis, Aurora's CEO, the company will focus on producing omega-3 fatty acids (to be used in dietary supplements, food and drinks) for sale mainly in European and American markets, as well as protein-rich algal biomass to be flogged as fish feed to Asian fish farms.
It remains to be seen whether Aurora's outdoor approach will pay off. Unlike indoor growth, which requires sugar, it has the advantage of free inputs in the form of sunlight and carbon emissions from nearby industrial plants. Yet ponds risk contamination from bacteria and other organisms floating around in the wild. And it will not work everywhere. Britain, rather unsurprisingly, does not get enough sunlight to make them viable.