The company, Kuehnle AgroSystems (KAS), is the brainchild of Adelheid Kuehnle, PhD, who has a long history in agricultural technology.  After completing a PhD in plant breeding at Cornell University, Kuehnle had a stint in academia as a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 

“After a stint as an academic I went out on my own,” ​Kuehnle said.  Kuehnle began working on the ideas that became KAS almost as soon as she arrived in Hawaii in the late 90s.  She transitioned into business full time in 2008.

Boost from biofuels

Like many in the algae sphere, Kuehnle’s activities got a boost from the big push to develop biofuels from algae.  In particular, she worked on the projects run through the San Diego-based defense contractors General Atomics and SAIC that was funded with an initial $35 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2008.  This was an effort to secure fuel for the engines in aircraft, ships and other vehicles that was immune to strategic worries about overseas petroleum supplies. Kuehnle said some of the high lipid production algae strains she had developed were validated at the million liter scale in this program.

In addition, Kuehnle said her company has also collaborated on other algae biofuels projects including algae-to-biofuels projects including those funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Hawaii Renewable Energy Development Venture (HREDV)/US Department of Energy (DOE) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Cost considerations have plagued the whole biofuels movement. The technology has been validated, and a jet fuel produced from alternative sources has been used to power the engines in a Navy fighter jet. But the fuels have yet to be able to compete on a cost basis with good old petroleum, especially as the fracking revolution, which started about the same time, made much more domestic petroleum production available.  While development work on the fuels continues, it’s unlikely that algae biofuels will become a common product anytime soon.