In part one of our series on algae-based biofuels, we posited that algae has the potential to make petroleum a thing of the past. In part two, we looked at traditional ethanol -- and why a blue-green algae version might fulfill ethanol's promise. Now, in the final part of our series on algae-based fuels, we spotlight Blue Marble, which is unique amongst even the niche industry of algae transformation.
"Why do I have to chose between the economy the environment and social goods?" asks Kelly Ogilvie. "To be told that you need to choose is a lie. It can be done through design integration."
Ogilvie is something of a practical mastermind. His philosophy: there is no such thing as compromising the environment for business, or vice-versa. Ogilvie created Blue Marble Energy in 2007 with the idea of cleaning the eutrophied lakes in his native city of Puget Sound, Washington.
By the time Blue Marble Energy came about, multiple companies were already invested in the concept of turning algae into biofuels. But Ogilvie was not interested in the progressively common idea of creating an alternative fuel for cars.
"We're considered the black sheep of the algae community," admitted Ogilvie, owing to the fact that Blue Marble's core business is instead using algae in creating petrochemicals and natural gas.
Petroleum chemicals are in just about everything, plastics, cleaning products, engine coolant, even some feedstock. And unlike other algae-petroleum products, these chemicals are not created through a fermentation process or by being squished out, but instead are the byproducts of microorganisms that feed off the algae and then secrete certain chemicals.
Granted the term "microbe excretion" sounds disgusting, but it comprises the entirety of what artificial flavoring. Ogilvie discovered before just about everyone else that bio-petrochemicals could make him a handsome profit in a lonely niche market, far superior than selling alga ethanol for a mere four dollars a gallon. And these chemicals are equivalent to petrochemicals -- not substitutions.
"We're not producing liquid fuels. Instead we can produce these interesting biochemicals that go for 10 times or 100 times more [and] we're displacing the need for petroleum [in food products] altogether," said Ogilvie. "From a commercial perspective, it's less crowded and it's higher profit" than the fuel substitutes, noting that a biochemical can produce a pineapple scent that can sell for high as $80 a gallon on the market. It's something Ogilvie playfully referred to as "eco-flavoring."
On the environmental side, Blue Marble is making sure it is doing everything right. Despite being accused of "stealing fish food" when removing the species-killing algae blooms, Blue Marble works closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to ensure its environmental practices are as non-evasive and as useful to ecosystem cleanup as possible.
"The state of Washington hired us to clean up its coastlines. The macro-algae, when you break it down, [is] only going to have pure chemicals," said Ogilvie. "The sustainability is incredible."
Ogilvie describes his company's ideals on a video hosted on Blue Marble's Web site, where he cites the next big world issues as energy, food, and clean water. By using algae already grown that is harming the environment, rather than farming it using fresh water, Ogilvie looks to improve the livelihood of all three of these issues. As noted, algae can be used as a viable energy and petroleum substitute, and whatever parts of algae not manipulated into fuels can be implemented to become an organic fertilizer. Algae, explains Ogilvie, is basically closing the loop on all three of these very important issues. Plus, the natural gas, another byproduct of digesting microorganisms, is an obvious sell in the alternative energy market.
Right now, the Seattle-based company is inches away from finding solid investors, although economic hard times have hit Blue Marble just as they have most other startups.
"It was a very hard sell early on, but lo and behold, we are still here today," said Ogilvie. "We're too small to handle some of the waste in the system, [and] one-third [of the processed algae] will be things that cannot be broken down."
The ultimate goal for Blue Marble is to go to China, where fresh water has become so scarce in the country's push towards economic growth that it has to be imported from neighboring Burma. Ogilvie wants to build algae-processing plants directly adjacent to nutrient-emitting coal factories.
"Energy is supposed to be cheap. Were going to operate more like oil companies ... and focus then on a technology that is scalable and off the shelf," said Ogilive. And even though algae blooms like the ones in China are frequently toxic, Ogilvie is sure his company is up for any challenge that comes its way.
"The dirty secret is that we can handle anything ... except for wood."
The rest of the story -- Blue Marble's ambition, its technology, and the good it can do on many levels -- seems to be a secret in plain site, just waiting for the public to catch on and capitalize.
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