The Dudley T. Dougherty Foundation

Cost Analysis of Algal Scale-up and Processing at San Domingo Ranch

Grant Information
Categories Environment
Location Texas
Cycle Year 2011
Organization Information
Organization Name (provided by applicant) The University of Texas at Austin - Center for Electromechanics
Organization Name (provided by automatic EIN validation)
Contact Information
Contact Name Steve Brahm
Phone 512-232-1624
10100 Burnet Road, Bldg 133
Additional Information
Used for Funds will be used to assess the feasibility of establishing a profitable algae growth and processing operation at the San Domingo Ranch. First native algae will be identified and characterized in terms of nutrient content, including protein, lipid, and carbohydrates to determine monetizable products. The availibility of water and its chemistry will also be evaluated. Based on the nutrient properties of the identified algae, a cost analysis will be performed to estimate the capital and operating costs of an algae growth and processing facility versus projected revenues from the operation.
Benefits Microalgae, which convert sunlight and CO2 into oils and high quality, protein-rich biomass, represent a sustainable source of biofuel and animal feed. Small ranches with a sufficient water supply and access to cost-efficient processing technologies have the opportunity to harness the power of these micro-organisms and provide fuels and feedstock to local farms. A comprehensive cost analysis of establishing an algal growth and processing operation is the first step to launch a first-of-its-kind pilot operation at San Domingo Ranch and provide a model for other small farms.
Proposal Description

Currently, the world consumes ~15 terawatts of energy per year and only 7.8% of this is derived from
renewable energy sources. Yet, ~85,000 terawatts of sunlight hits the surface of the Earth every year
(Cho, 2011). Despite this bounty of available renewable energy, replacing fossil fuel‐derived energy with
renewable energy sources derived from sunlight, such as wind, solar, hydro, or biomass energy is a
challenging in large part because these energy sources have a lower energy density, cannot be
controlled with an ‘on and off’ switch, and most are currently considerably more expensive than what
fossil fuels are today (Kerr 2011).
Photosynthetic organisms such as higher plants, algae, and cyanobacteria use sunlight and carbon
dioxide to produce a variety of commercially useful organic molecules, particularly proteins and lipids.
Microalgae have a much faster growth rate than terrestrial crops, with many species doubling daily, and
thus can be harvested accordingly. Furthermore, microalgae can grow in areas uninhabitable to other
terrestrial crops, and thus do not displace these crops in the consumer food chain. The Department of
Energy has identified Texas as an ideal location for large scale microalgal growth and commercialization
of algal products, although a consistent supply of water remains a technical barrier to large scale

Animal Feed
The world’s current growth rate is at 1.2% and is projected to nearly double in 56 years from
approximately 6.9 billion to 13 billion (PRB, 2008). With a rising human population, the availability of
food resources is at serious odds with its growing demand. Of particular importance are sources of
protein. In animal diets, soybean meal is the most widespread source of high‐quality protein
incorporated to meet animal protein nutrient requirements as determined by the National Resource
Council. Soybean meal may provide 44‐86% crude protein and is also responsible for a significant
percentage of the feed costs (NRC, 1998).
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 1 billion cattle, 40 billion poultry, 1 billion
swine, and 2 billion sheep and goat populations globally (Steinfeld et al., 2006). Since soybean meal is
also a staple food for human consumption, its strong prevalence as a protein source in animal diets
directly competes with its application in the human food market. When considering the world food crisis
and our growing population, it is evident that our current infrastructure of animal feed and human food
sources is unsustainable. Thus, developing alternatives to using soybean meal in animal feed not only
demands our immediate attention, but also is a necessary path for the sustainable livelihood of persons
living on earth.
The diversity of microalgae’s relatively rich amino acid profiles and high mineral composition make them
a promising candidate for incorporation into animal feed. In a study on the nutrient composition of
Spirulina maxima, over 60% of the dried alga was composed of crude protein, which consisted of all the
essential amino acids. The algae supplement was also high in several vitamins, including B1, B2, and
especially β‐carotene (pro‐vitamin A), and had adequate digestibility when fed to animals (Boeckaert
2008; Herber 1996). As such, the concept of using microalgae as an alternative source of protein
supplementation in animal feed presents an extremely exciting opportunity to improve global food
security by increasing soybean meal availability for human consumption and fill a vital need for the

OpenAlgae Technologies
Algae biomass and biofuels are not without limitations, largely due to the high cost of the infrastructure
and the energy required for growth and harvesting due mainly to the high water content of growing
algae. The traditional approach for harvesting and processing microalgae typically includes an algae
concentration step, a drying step, and an extraction step. Concentration (dewatering) can be
accomplished using a centrifuge, dissolved air floatation, or flocculation; algae can be dried using an
oven or drum dryer; hexane or supercritical CO2 are typically used to extract algal oils. Not only are
these processes expensive, but direct contact with hexane corrupts the biomass. Thus, using the
traditional methods of processing algae, the grower may either monetize the oil or the feed, not both.

The University of Texas recognized that in order for large scale algal growth to be successful, the grower
must be able to recover algal oil products and monetize the clean biomass as feed or fertilizer. In 2007,
UT formed a multidisciplinary team to develop technologies to drive down the cost of processing
microalgae. Over the last four years, UT civil engineers have developed a flow‐through dewatering and
concentration technique initially based on wastewater treatment strategies; electrical and mechanical
engineers along with biochemists and physicists developed a technique to rupture algal cells and
liberate algal oils; and chemical engineers repurposed off‐the‐shelf technologies to recover the liberated
oils. All of these technologies have been assembled sequentially onto a mobile unit that can be driven to
the grower’s site to harvest and process algae on a flow‐through basis from a pond or bioreactor to
produce two products, bio‐oil and clean biomass. The system is appropriate for freshwater to seawater
algae and the oil recovered from a site is dependent on the oil concentration within the algae.

We propose to assess various microalgae located on the San Domingo Ranch and perform a cost analysis
for processing microalgae from this location using OpenAlgae technologies. A small team of UT
researchers will sample microalgae from the site along with the associated water. Once the water
chemistry is determined, the algae will be scaled up at the UT Algae Institute, then further evaluated for
nutrient content, including proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. Based on the growth inputs and nutrient
contents, we will conduct an analysis of the costs associated with scaling up the selected algae at the
site and compare these costs to projected revenues. Because microalgae availability varies throughout
the year, algae will be sampled quarterly over the course of one year. Analyses will be performed as
samples are collected and the information may be shared with the Dougherty Foundation as periodic
Specific Aims
Aim 1: Identify local algal species with high protein and/or lipid concentration. UT will isolate algal
species growing in moist environments in southeastern Texas. The alga may be growing in water or wet
soil. A water chemistry analysis will be performed for each site to determine native growing conditions.
The isolate will then be further grown at UT in the native water to a cellular density that will facilitate
further analysis. The analyses will include, but may not be limited to, protein and lipid concentration.
Aim 2: Conduct a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis based on the findings of Aim 1. The protein and
lipid contents of the candidate algal species identified in Aim 1 will used to calculate the 1) volume of
water required for scale‐up growth, 2) nutrients required for scale‐up growth, 3) the estimated cost of
growth and processing of the algae, and 4) the estimated volume of algal oil or protein production at
scale. These costs will be based on utilizing OpenAlgae processing technologies developed by the
University of Texas.

Updates on selected algal species’ nutrient content and growth kinetics.
Cost analysis of scale‐up and processing vs projected revenue.
Final report detailing all findings and analyses.