From pond to plane: Algae’s viability as SAF feedstock


It may not look like anything, but if you have ever cleaned out a neglected pond, you will know how heavy algae is. “Algae is the fastest growing plant in the world. It actually doubles in its biomass in less than 24 hours. Nothing grows faster than algae in the plant world,” says Dr. Lanz Chan, president and CEO, Eves Energy.

Chan has launched Eves Energy in Singapore to produce algae oil for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). On paper this is easy. “We take the algae from the ocean. We put it on the ground, on non-arable land, we put it in tanks, we give it the ideal conditions,” explains Dr. Chan. “We use processes to extract oil from the farmed algae – referred to as the crude algae oil.”

Algae oil can then be used by refineries to process into SAF. In addition, algae biomass is well-suited to be processed in existing refining infrastructure.

According to Algae Biomass Organisation, a US non-profit think tank, algae biomass’ molecular composition, either directly or combined with other feedstocks is, ideally suited to enter into an existing refinery’s hydrotreater to produce blend-ready SAF. This is by using a hydrotreated esters and fatty acid (HEFA) pathway that has been ASTM certified (D7566).

Algae-derived SAF has already been used in two flights in Japan. Honeywell’s Ecofining technology processed the crude algae oil into SAF in partnership with a Japanese firm in 2021.

The key to unlocking the potential of algae lies in its oil content. “We know when we extract the oil, in some cases you get 20-30% oil whereas in some cases, you can extract up to 70%. But if you use proper methods, you can get 50% oil consistently from algae.” But what happens to the other 50%? “The leftover biomass after oil extraction holds further value. It can be transformed into high-protein animal feed, fertiliser, or even protein powder. This versatility maximises resource utilisation and minimises waste.” Eves Energy is working on making noodles from algae.

But algae’s utilisation doesn’t end here; it excels at capturing CO2. Some species can absorb up to 400 times more CO2 than trees of the same volume. “So, with just one site we can develop three separate revenue streams: algae oil, protein source and carbon credits.”

But why hasn’t the technology scaled if it has so many benefits? Well for starters, the price has been a big challenge. According to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s DISCOVR R&D consortium, producing one ton of algae can cost about $600 per ton, although this has come down from $800 from a year ago. Adding to that the processing cost of converting the algae into oil and then other fixed costs, the economics becomes tricky for algae.

Eves is not the only SAF company excited by algae. Many firms failed. Viridos – formerly Synthetic Genomics – has been one of the survivors. Last year Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Chevron (a rival of ExxonMobil) and United Airlines Ventures invested $25m. The cash will be used for research and development to increase algae productivity.

Dr. Chan believes that scale is the key factor in reducing prices and is looking for investors to prove this.

“At present, the pricing of algae oil by the majority of producers is comparable to, if not higher than, olive oil, leading to its use in high-end products,” says Chan. “However, we have the capability to reduce this cost. The technology to manufacture low-cost algae oil is already in place, and we are actively seeking more investors and licensees, including palm oil plantations, to transition to algae production.”

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