Econ Essentials: Seeker Stories

Satisfy your students’ curiosity and further their learning with this three-part mini documentary series by Seeker. Each episode transports students across the globe and showcases stories of people and places that are shaping how economics is impacting our world today.

How Algae Could Change the Fossil Fuel Industry

Meet Dave Hazlebeck, CEO of Global Algae Innovations. His company is developing new techniques to convert algae into energy. The challenges associated with bringing new and innovative technologies to market and reaching a sufficient scale to make the solutions viable are presented.

We sat down with Dave and asked a few questions, first about himself and then about his company Global Algae Innovations:


You have 20 patents and 19 patents pending. Are they all related to innovations in algal production?

No, they are not all related to algae production, some are in Supercritical fluids, ceramic-ceramic composites, and electrochemistry. The majority of the patents pending are in algae production, and we expect to submit about 30-40 more patents over the next year or so.

How many times did you fail before you got it right?

Some things worked the first time, others took many attempts, and we are always working to make new improvements. For example, our carbon dioxide capture from power plant flue gas worked the first time, but we currently have a project to improve to the efficiency. In harvesting algae from the water, we tried many approaches, probably ~ 30-40. Even the current technology was tried twice and rejected. In the third attempt we had 3 months of failure before getting it to work, and it took another 6 months of tests before we arrived at the approach we currently use.

We tell our students over and over again about the importance of collaboration and communication skills. In your R&D work with multiple companies and universities, how did these skills help or hinder the work?

Writing and oral communication skills are crucial to success. I led a team of 30 companies to develop algae technology. Figuring out effective methods to share current technology status, needs, and problems was vital for success. Like most technology areas, algae production technology development requires a multi-disciplinary team with skills in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and economics; so communicating to develop plans, share test results, understand needs, and cast a team vision is very important for success.

Why Chemical Engineering? What/Who sparked your interest in this field of study?

I chose chemical engineering because I am naturally very strong in math and science, and I wanted to go into a field where I could work on solutions to problems that are important for improving the world such as solar energy, recycling, waste treatment, sustainable food and fuel, energy efficiency, and cancer research. My father was a Chemical Engineer, so I knew it offered the broad platform needed to address all of these areas and more. I worked in polymeric membrane development as an undergraduate; my master’s research was on recombinant bacteria based production processes; and my Ph.D. research was in electrochemical processing. My first job was to develop ceramic-ceramic composites for higher efficiency engines and high temperature superconductors.

Global Algae Questions

It looks like you are on the fore-front of changing HABs, Harmful Algal Blooms, into Helpful Algal Blooms. For our students, what’s the difference? Is it the species of algae, production methods and/or both?

Both. Harmful Algal Blooms are most commonly the result of runoff of nutrients from terrestrial farming. These nutrients cause ecosystems to become out of balance with excessive algae growth. As the algae dies, bacteria eat the dead algae use up all of the oxygen in the water. This creates a dead zone where fish and other aquatic animals cannot survive because there is no oxygen in the water. Another problem with HABs is that some algae species produce toxins for protection against predators or other algae. These toxins can also be harmful to fish or people. The Helpful Algal Blooms we produce are in man-made ponds that are especially designed to grow algae. The algae species we grow do not produce toxins. There is no runoff of nutrients from the algae production process, so algae farming does not create Harmful Algal Blooms like traditional farming does.

What are some of the barriers that your team has had to overcome to produce algae for both fuel and food?

There are man barriers to producing algae for food and fuel. Some of these are

  1. how to grow the algae we want without wild algae taking over the ponds,
  2. how to get the algae to grow fast enough without adding too much electricity to move the water around
  3. how to get carbon dioxide that the algae needs for growth from waste sources like power plant off-gas
  4. how to separate the algae from the water without using too much electricity

Which are you most proud of?

I am most proud of our ability to grow the algae on carbon dioxide from a power plant because no-one else has been able to do this in large open pond algae production and our technology to harvest the algae with very low energy because we use more 100 times less electricity than the prior technology.


Want to learn more?  Make sure you go to Econ Essentials to seek out the Seeker Series of videos.  Here’s the companion guide for educators to help.


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