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On Becoming an Algae Entrepreneur in Australia

April 19, 2011, by Stephen Bedford Clark
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

My introduction to algaculture began as a young Mining Engineer in Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom. It was fueled by my hobby and passion for raising aquarium fish, the delicate larvae requiring cultured spirulina to survive.

By 1990, the British Government closed the majority of their coal mines due to atmospheric pollution concerns. Out of necessity we became environmental engineers, rehabilitating the coal spoil mounds; and from the once damaged land rose a centre for sustainability called “The Earth Centre,” where we trialed our first algae photo-bioreactor “Biofence” in 1995.

After stints on extensive pond fish farms in North America and Europe, I travelled to Australasia and took on the role of General Manager of a large South Australian fish hatchery, culturing ten tons of the saltwater Nannochloropsis sp. per day.

After following the upsurge of algae biofuels development in the USA, I decided to leave my comfortable consulting position In Perth, Western Australia, to move to the Eyre Peninsula, in South Australia. Here we set about living a more sustainable lifestyle and developing the Darke Peak Algae Biofuels project on a 2.4 hectare strip of land in the township. After initiating our Australian private company called Fishace Pty Ltd, my first assignment was to review the fledgling international algae biofuels industry along with its current technical and scientific methodologies.

My conclusion was that both extensive open pond algaculture and intensive algae photo-bioreactors (APBs) had merit. The former having the ability to produce large scale biomass with low algal density, whilst the reverse was true of the photo-bioreactor.

Darke Peak Algae Biofuels Process

Darke Peak Algae Biofuels Process

To reduce capital costs we are designing 1.2 m deep earth (bentonite lined) ponds rather than the more conventional shallow (0.3 to 0.6m depth) raceways. Turbulence will be achieved using the latest nano-technological micro-mixing techniques, while waste grain products and native fish emulsions will provide both nutrients and vitamins for the local cultured microalgae species. We will use an abundant source of saline groundwater and utilise salt-affected, damaged agricultural land. We also intend to educate local farmers to diversify and produce algal biomass for on-site processing.

The principles of our low carbon design considers solar groundwater pumping, and gravity fall of circulating water linking the ponds, lowering operating costs. Concept drawings outline the proposed methodology and are quickly followed by the more physical aspects of the development in more detailed design. (If you have experience using such drawing software packages, this will save finances.)

The APBs will be designed in conjunction with our partners, Flinders University, in Adelaide. The interface between pond and APB is where innovation is required. The unique RED-LED intensive algae production machine will deliver live juvenile phytoplankton to the pond while harvesting adult algal species, filtering the oil filled cells to the biomass processing facility.

By combining earth ponds with APBs, we will produce both volume and density, a requirement if we are to sell cost effective biofuels to our local agricultural sector. A business plan emerges where research data is fed into production and financial models to assess these methodologies and where business strategies are outlined to communicate to potential investors and partners.

While our grass roots project is dedicated to providing commercialization and sustainable development to a hub for producing cheap algal biomass, our intention is to stimulate other local agri-businesses to produce added value byproducts such as the extraction of boutique health salts, health foods, Omega-3 oils, beta-carotene and other nutraceutical products. The highly rich residue end product is then manufactured into fertilizers, fish or livestock feed.

In the context of applied sustainability, there is also an opportunity to re-develop this rural township into a self-sustaining low carbon demonstration of future living. Regional fuel decentralisation and local employment contribute to the local economy, ending reliance on costs associated with transporting “fuel with fuel” and the accompanying high carbon footprints.

Community values are infused into a clustered “cottage Industry manufacturing model,” first advocated by the UN Zero Emissions Research Initiative, where regional waste is perceived more as a resource. If this is to be seen as a model of future sustainability, then the community should also be integrated into business development and the opportunities of downstream processing. This suggests a transparent new age company that integrates within the community and our environment.

The final, critical element of the business planning exercise is financial sustainability. The specific knowledge required to successfully financially forecast is an art form based on the most accurate assumptions that can be provided. A five-year forecast not only plans the next years of expansion, but gives an indication of capital cost and operating requirements.

Darke Peak Algaculture Process Model

Darke Peak Algaculture Process Model

Our goal at Darke Peak is to construct, monitor and refine a system that will produce the equivalent of 100,000 litres of oil per annum at a wholesale cost well below rising fossil fuel prices. The commercialization, intellectual property and blueprint will be delivered in a period of twelve months following the inception of an R&D initiated partnership, scientific monitoring and analysis with our academic partners, Flinders University, in Adelaide. The business plan then states that our company will develop a further nine facilities in Australian townships by 2016, with a target of producing 10 million litres of biodiesel per year.

The hardest stage for any startup business is raising public awareness to attract funding to the project, particularly if it is of small scale and value. Big investors like big projects. We are up to the point where local development application procedures merge with community consultation meetings. Media attraction and potential investors go hand in hand.

Our future aspirations include developing a learning centre for algaculture for local, national and international training courses. As ecological engineers we see the benefit of cheap, low carbon energy for agri-business while introducing new products and business opportunities.

In a project manager’s role, the preliminary works required for the project to begin are nearly all in place, the green button is ready to press, we just need that wave of Cleantech funding to arrive in Australia.

From a personal and family perspective, it is also challenging to juggle life’s everyday responsibilities, particularly in sacrificial income for the passion of believing and proving a concept. It is a lifestyle choice of a more simple existence; not relying on over-consumption, being resource friendly, working with nature – not against it, and then practicing what we preach.

A few final words for others on this path: Be prepared to suffer negative blows, but celebrate every step forward in your business development. Question established methods and do not accept that it has “always been done that way.” It is an entrepreneur’s determination that wins the day.

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