Algae and ethanol partnerships grow

By Hope Deutscher | August 10, 2009
Algae producers are turning to the ethanol industry in an effort to create ethanol and use its byproducts.

The focus of most algae producers is drop-in replacements, such as renewable diesel or renewable gasoline, said Todd Taylor, lead attorney in biofuels and biomass at Fredrikson & Byron PA. "The algae people that are looking at ethanol are doing it because there's an immediate market for it," he said. "Algenol Biofuels has been far and away the company that has been focused on this."

Algenol Biofuels Inc. was formed in March 2006 as a company dedicated to the utilization and commercialization of algae for ethanol production. In June, Algenol and Dow Chemical Co. announced plans to build and operate a pilot-scale, algae-based integrated biorefinery that will convert carbon dioxide into ethanol on 24 acres at Dow's Freeport, Texas, site.

Growing algae for biodiesel and ethanol may look similar, however, Paul Woods, co-founder and CEO of Algenol Biofuels, said the two processes are very different. Algenol grows different algae species, cultivates and harvests the product differently. "From our perspective, ethanol is an evaporative product. So we have a closed and sealed bioreactor where we introduce carbon dioxide into it. The algae, sunlight and seawater form ethanol, which enters the culture but very quickly evaporates into the headspace. We collect off and purify the headspace."

According to Woods, based on an acreage basis, Algenol's technology could produce 6,000 gallons of algae per year per acre. The first of its kind pilot-scale technology biorefinery will have the potential to produce more than 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year, while consuming two dry tons of carbon dioxide obtained from industrial emissions daily.

In June, Algenol submitted a formal request to the U.S. DOE to obtain a grant for financial support to successfully conduct the pilot project. Upon approval of the grant, Algenol, Dow and other collaborators will work to demonstrate the technology at a level to sufficiently prove that it can be implemented on a commercial scale.

The biggest potential for algae and ethanol is probably more on the coproducts side, according to Taylor. For example, one of Fredrikson & Byron's clients is working with other algae companies to use the high carbohydrate algae biomass left after oil extraction to add it back into the fermentation tanks with corn to create more ethanol. Another client is using the dead algae bodies to create an algae bio-coal that can be fed into the energy system of a facility just like natural gas.

"I don't think you'll start seeing [design/build companies] offering algae-to-ethanol conversion kits any time soon, but I do think that you'll see a whole lot of algae companies approaching ethanol companies saying, ‘Can I partner with you to take the fermentation carbon dioxide and grow algae?'" Taylor said, adding that costs to install such technology could be a prohibitive factor.

Recently, the U.S. DOE announced that up to $85 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been set aside to develop algae-based biofuels and advanced, infrastructure-compatible biofuels. The DOE expects to select two to three partnerships and fund projects over three years. The announcement targets two crucial areas: algal biofuels research and development and advanced, infrastructure-compatible biofuels research and development.