Green Stuff Grows Up

Grand opening marks important step for ethanol-to-algae
By Kris Bevill | May 13, 2011

More than 300 people, including curious locals, biofuels industry representatives, state officials and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, attended the official grand opening April 15 of BioProcess Algae LLC’s commercial-scale algae bioreactor project, held at Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc.’s 55 MMgy Shenandoah, Iowa, ethanol plant. The event marked a truly celebratory moment for the company and the biofuels industry as a whole by bringing wide attention to an innovative technology that could transform the ethanol industry, according to GPRE CEO Todd Becker. “What we are accomplishing is showing the world that not only does carbon have value, but that carbon and other byproducts from this ethanol plant can create a product that will give Americans food, feed and fuel,” he says.

Vilsack cut the red ribbon at the event and toured the facility. Calling it a “remarkable project” and, declaring that he’s never seen anything quite like it, Vilsack noted four components necessary to the success of the project thus far: financial investment, innovation, networking and a “sense of place,” indicating rural areas are more likely to embrace ethanol-related technologies.

The bioreactor project is a collaborative venture between GPRE, filtration product manufacturer Clarcor Inc., BioProcessH20 LLC, a wastewater purification technology company, and NTR plc, an international renewable energy investment group. Waste heat, waste water and CO2 from the ethanol plant are converted to algae using BioProcess Algae’s trademarked Grower Harvester bioreactors. Algae harvested from the bioreactors is comprised of more than 90 percent water, so a dewatering process is applied post-harvest, which results in a product with toothpaste-like consistency.

When the project was launched three years ago, the collaborators believed that downstream markets would be ready when it became commercial. The project has advanced more rapidly than expected, however, leaving GPRE and the others to become product developers as well. Becker says the most likely use for the algae is as a feed product, although it has many other possible applications as well. “Algae gives us one of the greatest opportunities to break our dependence on foreign oil,” he says. Lipids and oils extracted from the algae can be used to produce biodiesel, but the algae could possibly be sent directly to refineries to produce bio-crude. A refiner is currently evaluating this possibility. Additionally, tests show it is possible to produce ethanol from the algae. at least at a lab scale, though Becker says that’s probably the lowest-value product that can be produced using the algae.

The rate at which the algae project has achieved commercial ability has surprised even the developers. Earlier this year, GPRE announced work would begin next year on a commercial-scale algae farm at the ethanol plant site. But during the bioreactor grand opening, BioProcess Algae CEO Tim Burns made a surprise announcement that construction would begin much sooner. And in fact, in late April Burns confirmed that site work had begun for the 5-acre farm and said the outdoor reactor will be operational later this summer. Though Burns didn’t specify the capacity of the commercial farm, Becker noted during a recent GPRE financial report conference call that if the entire 150,000 tons of CO2 produced annually at the Shenandoah plant were to be captured for algae production, it could be used to produce up to 50,000 tons of  biomass. Once the project reaches the point at which all of the CO2 is being used for algae production, it is possible that ethanol produced at plants using the technology might qualify as advanced biofuels.

Burns says that while the bioreactors can be fed a wide range of CO2-rich emission streams, such as those from coal-fired power plants, cement producers and petroleum refineries, the established infrastructure for transportation fuels and animal feed coproducts is viewed as a huge advantage for the ethanol industry. Therefore, the company’s initial goal is to commercialize co-located algae production facilities throughout the ethanol industry, he says, which will allow BioProcess Algae collaborators to focus on what they do best—“grow algae.”
—Kris Bevill