Aquatic Energy farms algae.

Yes, the company is intentionally growing the stuff that thrives with little help in roadside ditches, lakes and backyard pools in south Louisiana.

The state’s moist and warm algae-friendly environment is in part what lured brothers David and Nathan Johnston from Maryland to Lake Charles, where their young company hopes to turn a profit by turning algae into fuel.

“When we first moved down here, people thought of it as a science project, but it has really taken off,” said Nathan Johnston, Aquatic Energy’s marketing and communications manager.

Their venture is a “hidden secret” in the state’s emerging alternative energy industry, said University of Louisiana at Lafayette Dean of Engineering Mark Zappi.

“In many ways they are pioneering,” said Zappi, who has been a strong advocate of alternative fuel research in the state.

The company was founded in 2006 in Maryland and moved to the Lake Charles area in 2007 after scouting several possible locations for the venture, said CEO David Johnston, who launched the algae project after helping start a facility in Maryland that processes poultry fat into biofuel.

“At the end of the day, Louisiana had all the right ingredients,” he said.

The algae-friendly environment was a major attraction, but another plus was the area’s petroleum refineries.

Aquatic Energy hopes to cultivate those refineries into customers for an algae oil that, unlike many other biofuels, can be processed with conventional refinery equipment and used in normal diesel engines, David Johnston said.

Commercial production could still be a few years off, David Johnston said.

In the meantime, the company, supported mainly by private investors, has been honing its farming techniques, expanding operations and working to fine tune its product.

At a demonstration site that the company opened last year near Jennings, algae-laden water fills long ponds where paddle wheels churn the water to keep the algae exposed to the sunlight and nutrients.

Algae grows easily, but the difficulty is finding the best native algae strain for oil production and then carefully controlling nutrient levels, density and other factors to boost the growth of that one strain while discouraging the development of competing algae strains, Nathan Johnston said.

“It wants to grow,” he said. “It’s a matter of optimizing that growth.”

The algae can be harvested year round, with one strain grown in the winter that does well in the cold and a different strain in the summer that thrives in the heat, Nathan Johnston said.

To harvest the algae, pond water is pumped through a machine to separate most of the water, and the algae is then dried into a powder.

The water is recycled back into the ponds, along with the carbon dioxide emissions from the natural gas-powered driers, which the algae consumes in photosynthesis.

The dried algae powder is then put into an extractor where a chemical reaction pulls out the oil.

David Johnston said the company hopes to market the leftover algae meal for use in protein-rich animal feed.

“Half of our business is fuel; the other half is food,” he said.

ULL’s Zappi said algae has been drawing increasing attention as an alternative fuel source in recent years and has significant advantages over other plant-based biofuel crops, such as corn or soybeans.

Algae can be farmed on marginal land that is unproductive for other crops, Zappi said, and the amount of oil produced by algae per acre dwarfs that produced by other biofuel sources.

Soybeans, for instance, yield about 50 gallons of oil per acre per year, compared with algae, which can be farmed all year and yields from 1,000 to 6,500 gallons of oil per acre annually, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been supporting research into algae-based fuel production.

Zappi said universities and some of the major oil companies have been conducting algae research but more work is needed before algae offers a commercially viable fuel alternative.

“It’s on the verge of being profitable,” he said.

Zappi said ULL has worked about three years with Aquatic Energy, which he characterized as one of only a handful of “legitimate” algae fuel start-ups in the country engaged in serious research and development.

The algae-based fuel industry is also on the radar of the Louisiana Economic Development department, which commissioned a study two years ago that found the state’s environment and the abundance of cheap land make Louisiana well suited to for algae farms.

Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said algae-based fuel production “shows significant promise” as a facet in the state’s developing focus on the renewable energy industry, which he anticipates will be one of the state’s top growth areas in the coming years.