Making the Milestones cut was San Diego-based
Hazlebeck began his work with algae at General Atomics with funding from the Department of Defense, which was interested in creating an alternative fuel.
“They were concerned about there being no local oil supply [in Hawaii] – everything had to be shipped in,” he said. “The concern was if somebody could interdict the shipping to Hawaii, they could shut down the Pacific fleet.”
With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Hazlebeck’s General Atomics team built an R&D algae farm facility on the island of Kawaii and the research was recognized as one of the top alternative fuel programs in the country because algae was found to be a far superior source for fuel than cellulose-based fuels made from corn.
“If the U.S. could capture all the cellulose that it could and convert it all to fuel, we’d only meet about a third of our fuel demand for the country,” Hazlebeck said. “Algae has the potential to meet the whole world’s demand, not just the U.S. demand.”
Although the program was successful, the Department of Defense eventually lost interest in it and General Atomics “decided to step out,” Hazlebeck said. He left the company in 2013 to form Global Algae Innovations and pursue algae’s potential.
Dealing with Deforestation
“When I started this company, we started looking at all the other issues in the world and realized algae could have a much bigger impact than just fuel if we broadened our horizons in terms of what we were looking at,” Hazlebeck said. “Right from the beginning, we knew we needed to use the whole algae.”
Algae produces high amounts of both protein and oil which are more valuable commodities to farmers than the sugars produced by cellulose crops like corn. Algae farms can produce nine times as much oil and 23 times as much protein per acre compared to palm or soy, Hazlebeck said. This unparalleled productivity enables restoration of 31 acres of rainforest for every acre of algae.
In Southeast Asia, the primary driver of deforestation is palm oil production. In South America, farmers are cutting down forests to grow soy. Replacing palm and soy with more productive algae farms that need a much smaller footprint will enable rainforest regrowth to capture carbon dioxide and store it in both above ground and below ground biomass. Global Algae’s proposed megaton scale project is projected to capture 11 million tons of CO2 in rainforest regrowth per year.
Sequestering CO2 and restoring biodiverse rainforests is not the only advantage to replacing palm and soy with algae farms.
“If we can bring a 30-fold improvement in agricultural productivity to rural communities, that’s going to lead to massive rural rejuvenation,” Hazlebeck said. “That kind of productivity can lift whole regions out of poverty. It’s a win across a whole bunch of different categories, not just climate.”
That financial win for farmers is key to mass adoption of algae farming.
Jet Fuel, Polymer Products
In addition to saving the plant by growing proteins and oils for food, algae can also offer farmers the opportunity to produce polymer products and, eventually, jet fuel.
For the carbon capture XPRIZE competition, Global Algae is producing non-biodegradable plastics from the algae, although the elder Hazlebeck points out that algae can be made into biodegradable plastics as well.
“The climate people would rather see it not biodegradable because it sequesters the carbon,” he said, adding that the deforestation component of Global Algae’s XPRIZE plan is the bulk of the carbon capture at 11 million tons a year, but plastics production will also capture 1 million tons a year.
Although not included in the models of algae farms submitted for the XPRIZE competition, the biofuel aspect of algae farming is still very much in Global Algae’s plan for company because fuel is a much larger market than either proteins or plastics.
“The jet fuel part doesn’t help with the prize but is beneficial to climate,” Hazlebeck said, adding that replacing fossil jet fuels with algae would lead to a 90% reduction in in aviation carbon emissions.
In September of last year, Global Algae Innovations was a recipient of a grant awarded by the Biden Administration for developing alternative jet fuels. The grant and the XPRIZE Milestones money will go towards building Global Algae’s Farm 160 in San Louis Obispo County – a scaled up version of the R&D facility in Kawaii.
“We now have the technology package ready to scale-up and are excited to break ground on Farm 160 later this year,” said the younger Hazlebeck. “Farm 160 is the most critical next step to the commercialization of algae farming worldwide.”
Farm 160 will be a key component for the next round of the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition. Global Algae must prove that it can sequester carbon at a much higher scale. The new facility will produce a couple thousand tons of plastic per year, allowing Global Algae to meet the objective CO2 sequestration set by XPRIZE.
Hazlebeck described the competition process as “intense” and requiring “a lot of spreadsheets.”
“It’s the largest review of the technologies to date so to be selected in the top 15 for carbon removal, it’s a big step for our company,” he said, but added that winning an XPRIZE isn’t Global Algae’s motivation for developing the technology.
“We were excited when [the competition was announced] because it fit with our timeline,” he said. “With or without an XPRIZE, we were doing this anyway. But it’s nice validation and confirmation that we’re on the right track.”
Global Algae Innovations
CEO: Dave Hazlebeck
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Algae farms and products
Notable: In addition to an XPRIZE Milestone award, Global Algae received a White House grant last year to develop algae-based jet fuel.