Algae in the Air: 5 Startups Turning Algae Into Jet Fuel

A kerosene-based aviation fuel called Jet Propellant 8 made up more than 90 percent of the fuel used by the Department of Defense in 2006, at a cost of $6 billion, according to Cleantech Group. Take all of that fuel, and combine it with commercial airlines’ needs, volatile fuel prices, and urgent calls for energy independence, and you have a massive market all but begging for a cheaper, renewable alternative. A growing number of companies are now racing to supply it with algae.

Some, like Science Applications International and General Atomics, recent recipients of military contracts for algal biofuels R&D, have been around for decades. But startups that have launched in the last 10 years, including the five fast-moving ventures below, could be the ones that finally get pond scum ready for take off.

Solazyme: The San Francisco-based firm uses synthetic biology and genetic engineering to boost biofuel yields from algae. Solzyme grows its algae in fermentation tanks sans sunshine, feeding it with sugar instead of light. In September, it announced a major breakthrough: an algal fuel that doesn’t freeze at high altitude.

Inventure Chemical Technology: Inventure makes a reactor system that uses thermochemical processes and catalysts to turn algae into three types of fuel, including jet fuel. While Inventure plans to sell the processing technology rather than the algae product itself, it has partnered with algae producer Seambiotic to build an ethanol and biodiesel plant in Israel. The company closed its first round of funding ($2 million) in mid-2007 for developing jet fuel processes.

Sapphire Energy: With more than $100 million from high-profile investors including Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, ARCH Venture Partners and Venrock, Sapphire is one of the best-funded algae-to-fuel startups around. On Monday, Sapphire announced that former BP (s bp) exec C.J. Warner has joined the team as president and pledged to take the company’s “green crude” to commercial scale within five years.

Aquaflow Bionomic Corp.: The New Zealand-based firm announced earlier this month that, using technology from Honeywell (s HON) subsidiary UOP, it has converted (for the first time) wild algae into synthetic paraffinic kerosene, which can be combined with conventional kerosene for jet fuel. The company launched an effort last month to raise up to $16.6 million from a new public offering, with plans to use the money to commercialize its technology over the next 18 months.

Algenol Biofuels: Naples, Fla.-based Algenol circumvents expensive refining processes by collecting ethanol vapors directly from algae. The startup has $70 million in private backing and an agreement with Sonora Fields S.A.P.I. de C.V. (a wholly owned subsidiary of Mexican-owned BioFields) to build an $850 million project. The plant is slated to come online in 2009 and, according to Algenol, eventually deliver a billion gallons of cheap fuel a year.