Aquatic microorganisms (AMOs) currently being explored for advanced biofuel production include multiple species of microalgae, cyanobacteria, and other microorganisms. Algae may be grown autotrophically–using light energy to produce organic compounds from CO2 via photosynthesis, or heterotrophically–using ingested organic compounds for growth through fermentation.
- AMOs have been commercially grown and harvested for over 40 years for applications in the food, cosmetics, and nutraceuticals industries.
- The first concerted effort to develop AMO biofuels was the United States Aquatic Species Program (ASP) from 1978 to 1996. The project was abandoned due to the program’s inability to demonstrate a pathway to commercial viability.
- Since the cancellation of the ASP, a combination of chemical and biological engineering breakthroughs and a dramatic increase in petroleum prices has renewed interest in AMO biofuels.
- Since 2007, over US$1 billion in private capital has been committed to algal biofuels development, although significant investments from public and private sources are still required before commercialization is realized. Important investors in AMO technologies include ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Bunge, EcoPetrol, and Unilever.
- AMO feedstocks are characterized by high yield potential; however, harvesting and extraction technologies, and other systems engineering challenges have made large-scale production cost-prohibitive to date.
- There are significant near- and mid-term opportunities for biological and engineering breakthroughs, but commercial development will be a long-term, capital-intensive undertaking.