Take a little Arizona sunshine and mix in water and some cow manure.
It’s the perfect recipe for what some see as the next major industry for the state: algae farming.
Arizona, with its sunny, warm climate has been hailed as the ideal region for algae biomass production. Proponents hope that algae, which can contain up to 60 percent oil, can some day squeeze out a petroleum substitute that could be produced at a price low enough to compete with natural gas.
But first, researchers must find the best way to mass produce the crop, something that several companies in the state are hustling to do.
One Arizona firm, Phyco Biosciences, is banking on its agricultural-style series of plastic-lined troughs bubbling with oxygen and nutrients to commercialize algae biomass.
The Phyco system is different from the standard mass-cultivation process of growing algae in raceway ponds, shallow man-made ponds in a large ovals in a “raceway” formation. Those systems use paddlewheels to push the water, but they require heavy maintenance.
Phyco’s system sits on leased land on a 3,500-cow dairy farm here in Casa Grande. A subsidiary of XL Renewables, Phyco first expects to glean profits from algae-based products like dietary supplements and animal feed before moving on to biofuel.
With ample amounts of wastewater and brackish water in holding ponds in the state, the algae culture business could be Arizona’s next breakthrough industry, said Rep. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande. He attended a tour of Phyco’s pilot facility here following the Fourth Annual Algae Biomass Summit in Phoenix last week.
“Anytime we can utilize arid land or utilize an area where we have some low-quality water and we can get production out of it, it’s certainly worth looking into,” Pratt said.
“They (Phyco Biosciences) may be pioneers, if they can perfect this technology and get it to where it’s economical and they can produce energy,” he said.
Now focused on growing the tiny plants on a mass scale, Phyco is also developing technology to harvest the algae, but CEO Ben Cloud declined to comment on specifics, citing proprietary information.
So far, the company has proven its trough system can yield roughly 25 tons of algae per acre each year, Cloud said. He said the state could produce much more algae if it had more water.
“The desert Southwest is an ideal place to grow algae biomass,” Cloud said. “We don’t have enough water, but in the areas where we do have enough water, we’ve learned how to manage it. … We really do look at algae biomass as a crop.”
The crucial part of the trough system is at the end of each trough. Unlike the raceways with their paddlewheels, the trough system has an air pump that draws the water from one trough to another, creating the aeration and constant flow that algae needs to grow. It also has a line that can pipe in fertilizer, which the company taps from the waste of the dairy farm.
“We need to do it on an economical scale,” said George McNeely, Phyco operations manager.
“We need to take it out of the lab but still have some of the controls to keep a good algae culture,” McNeely said. “To be able to cost-effectively harvest it, grow it and get it out to market.”
Ira Levine, associate professor of natural and applied science at the University of Southern Maine, said the Super Trough System has the potential to reduce the cost of biofuels down to a competitive and profitable level in the next 18 to 24 months.
“It costs a third as much as the classical raceways, uses half the energy and can be installed in a tenth the time,” said Levine, who was at last week’s algae summit. “It’s down to a level where biofuels is practical and doable. That’s a remarkable advancement.”