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By Robert Rapier on Jun 24, 2009 with no responses

John Benemann Responds to Green Algae Strategy Review

I recently published a review of Mark Edward’s book Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel. Following this review, I published a response from Mark Edwards. In that response, Professor Edwards mentioned Dr. John Benemann, who was Principal Investigator and main author of the U.S. DOE Aquatic Species Program (ASP) Close-Out Report:

Skeptics abound in the algae space and the leading skeptic, Dr. John Benemann, speaks at all the algae conferences and stands in stark contrast to many other equally experienced scientists who do not share his natural pessimism. John revels in his reputation for pessimism. Other scientists engaged in the Aquatic Species Report have a completely opposite view. Several are working for companies that are producing algae for fuel. Professor Milton Sommerfeld at ASU and a co-author on the Report, has been producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years.

Dr. Benemann had been following the exchange, and has e-mailed me a response to Professor Edward’s response, which I post in full below.


I had only glanced at Prof. Edwards book last year, but not read it as it has little or no technical content, and thus not of great interest to me. From what I recall, what Robert Rapier wrote in his review, seems quite reasonable, actually rather mild.

In his response, Prof. Edward wastes no time to bring up my name, for which I am honored, calling me the “leading skeptic” who “speaks at all the algae conferences” and “revels in his reputation for pessimism”. Well, I admit that I talk at way too many conferences (“all algae conferences” would be impossible), which I should give up as it seems to do little or no good. But I must correct Prof. Edwards, I am neither a skeptic nor a pessimist. I am an incurable optimist and promoter of algae technology R&D, even for biofuels. I must be, to work in this difficult, if not dismal, field. I am, however, also a realist, about such little matters as, for two examples only, engineering head loss calculations and the limits of photosynthetic efficiencies, which are of no concern to Prof. Edwards, whose avocation is marketing. And, I am afraid, are of no concern either to many, even most, practitioners in this field, who should know better but blithely ignore such realities. It is easier to be an optimist if you only need to market the idea, or do research, but creating reality is somewhat more difficult. I work hard for my optimism, trying to find ways to overcome the technical roadblock and economic limitations.

Prof. Edwards, attempting to rebut my alleged ‘pessimism” points to scientists working for “companies that are producing algae for fuel” and that one professor has been “producing algal oil for jet fuel in the laboratory and a field setting for several years”. Sorry, there are no companies producing algae for fuel, just try to buy some, even at $100/gallon (at $1000/gallon you may be able to get a few). Some are claiming to be producing, but there is not a shred of evidence that they have succeeded in any meaningful way. (Solazyme may have, but the economics still are far from proven, and using corn starch or sugar is not a good idea, and using sugars from lignocellulosic biomass, well let us not go there either).

The only company I know that is producing algae oil is Martek Corp., and that is for human food and sells for a hundred-fold that of petrol. Neither are laboratory and academic “field” pursuits a guide to reality or technology.

Prof. Edwards claims that he has “seen” one or more order of magnitude “cost reductions” of algal oil production, extraction and mixing, in the last year or two. With all due respect to his discipline, seeing is not believing, data would be, but it must be based on actual measurements and methods that can be independently verified. Nothing of the sort can be pointed to.

Prof. Edwards is, I am sure, a most qualified expert in business and marketing, but I see little here that is real business and even less than is marketing. Algae for feed and fuel still need a great deal of R&D, of uncertain outcome, like all R&D. I recommend to Prof. Edwards that he redirect his obvious talents to help the real algae industry, the nutritional supplements business. That would be most useful – it is hard to convince people that they should ingest algae (pond scum) on a daily basis. Some do, but not nearly enough. There is the real marketing challenge! And it would lead the way to increased production, to larger scales, lower costs, more R&D, and, who knows, maybe eventually get us to a price point where we can sell algae for food and feed competing with commodity crops. Maybe even fuels at that point, perhaps. I am just an incorrigible optimist.

John Benemann