Managing What You Measure

Algae Biomass Organization Executive Director Matt Carr discusses the importance of establishing common language in the algae sector.
By Matt Carr | May 19, 2015

Every biomass business must have ways to measure success, output and efficiency improvements. But how easy is it to compare those measures across an entire industry? It may be a simple matter of dry weight tonnage and market value, but it can also become vastly more complicated.

In the biobased business—where products must prove levels of sustainability to qualify for certifications, tax incentives, and other regulatory issues—measurement is key.

Because algae are some of the most flexible biomass sources available, there is an incredible range of algae products on the market today, and an even greater number and variety slated to appear in the near future. As such, it’s impossible to create a simple impact measurement.

We often field inquires at the Algae Biomass Organization such as:

• What is the going rate for a ton of algae?
• How much algae can be produced per gallon of water, or per ton of CO2?
• What are the land requirements for an algae farm?

These questions have answers, but those answers are not the blanket declarations we might expect when asking about output on biomass pellet values, or any commoditized industry for that matter.
Algae are unique in their diversity. They can be raised indoors or out, and their energy source can be sunlight, sugar or something else entirely. Other inputs include CO2 at varied concentrations, perhaps proprietary enhancers, and water that may be salt, brackish, fresh or sourced from wastewater facilities.

The outputs of algae cultivation can be even more diverse than their production methods, making measurement comparisons even more daunting. Algae production methods can produce varied ratios of oils, carbohydrates and proteins. One strain might produce an oil profile with a market value of a few dollars or few pennies per gallon, another might produce a specialty oil valued at hundreds or thousands of dollars per ounce.

Every algae company is pursuing a different combination of these inputs and outputs. So how do we attempt to standardize measurements to compare technologies and products?

The Algae Biomass Organization has taken the challenge head-on by developing a tool that offers a methodology to break down the different components of algae production into measurable blocks. The latest published iteration of this tool is the Industrial Algae Measurements Version 6.0, an all-volunteer effort from academic and industry experts on ABO’s Technical Standards Committee who recognize the key to managing the algae industry is measuring all the pieces that make success possible.

The IAM methodology sets the stage for standardized descriptions of the economic and environmental impact of almost any algae production facility, including all inputs and outputs. It provides the industry with a common descriptive language that can be applied across a variety of algae operations, regardless of size, technology or end products. Comparisons between similar methods or production segments now become possible.

This year, the IAM is being revised and updated to become an even more comprehensive reference document, and will include a comparative introduction of production systems as well as a standardized framework for lifecycle analysis discussions along with carbon allocation mechanisms.

IAM has been called the “operator’s manual” for building the algae industry, and it can even help reframe the aforementioned questions into different but more meaningful inquiries that can inform a particular market operator, investor or regulator about what they might expect from the algae-derived products that are now becoming commercially available.

For example, the value of a ton of dry algae can vary widely, from a few dollars to thousands upon thousands. Acknowledging the variety of production methods and outputs that IAM 6.0 compartmentalizes for us may lead to a reformulation of the question through the lens of a particular market or end-use: What is the cost of producing 1 gram of algae-derived Omega-3 fatty acids, or 1 ton of high-protein animal feed?

The old adage of “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is well understood by those of us in the algae industry who are working with so many different approaches. The IAM 6.0 is an important tool as a new wave of algae-derived products become available for purchase, driving revenues and competing alongside existing products. 

 Thanks to the common language these standards are establishing, the algae industry is ready to measure up to commercial scale.

Author: Matt Carr
Executive Birector, Algae Biomass Organization