Construction of five-acre algae farm begins at ethanol plant

By Kris Bevill | February 02, 2012

BioProcess Algae LLC and Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc. announced Feb. 1 that they have begun constructing a five acre algae production facility in southwest Iowa at the site of Green Plains’ 65 MMgy ethanol plant near Shenandoah. Construction of the algae facility is expected to progress quickly and the facility is slated to begin operating in the third quarter of this year.

The five acre facility is the next step in a long-term algae production project being carried out by BioProcess Algae, a joint venture between Green Plains, water filtration product manufacturer Clarcor Inc., clean-tech research and development company BioHoldings Ltd., and global renewable energy investment group NTR plc. Since first installing its trademarked Grower Harvester bioreactors at the Shenandoah plant in 2009, the project has continually met or exceeded its expectations, with the latest expansion being no exception. The company announced last fall that it planned to construct the five-acre farm in the spring and is now moving ahead as scheduled. But the successful scaling-up process has brought with it unexpected challenges on the demand side.

Last year, Green Plains CEO Todd Becker said that the project was progressing faster than market opportunities were being developed for algae. As a result, the company began participating in market development activities, supplying algae for feed trials and tests for other markets, such as pharmaceutical applications. That work continues to be conducted, with BioProcess Algae supplying product grown at a smaller scale at the Shenandoah plant.

Last fall, the company began operating commercial-scale horizontal bioreactors outdoors on less than an acre of property at the plant. Those bioreactors have run continuously throughout the winter, but they do not produce a large enough quantity to sell into the marketplace. That situation will soon change. The five acre site, which will include vertical and horizontal bioreactors as well as a plant to de-water and process the algae into a dried product, will be able to produce 200 tons of algae biomass per year—enough production for BioProcess Algae to start selling its product. “We’re moving out of the research phase and into the phase where this algae will make it into people’s finished products,” Becker said.

Where the algae ultimately ends up remains to be determined. The product has the potential for multiple applications, including as a feed, an energy source, and an ingredient in nutriceuticals and pharmaceuticals. According to BioProcess Algae CEO Tim Burns, product produced at Shenandoah has enabled companies to begin developing uses for the product. “We continue to work with potential strategic customers including major food, animal, feed, energy and pharmaceutical companies around the world,” he said. “Often times, this is the first access they have had to larger quantities of wholesale algae.” Regardless of the final end-use, however, BioProcess is unique in that it has no plans to develop or own intellectual property associated with the end-products. Rather, the company wants to play the role of farmer, supplying the wholesale dried algae to companies for their individual purposes.

“We’re trying to provide them a basic product that they can use to make the type of products they’re looking to make,” Becker said. “We think there’s a big need for that. We don’t need to control their product development. We’re focused on growing, harvesting and giving them a wholesale algae that they can make their products from and we think we can do that very cost-effectively. Our solution is a high-value, high-volume growing system that we think will be some of the lowest cost production in the industry.”

Inputs required to produce algae in the Grower Harvesters include wastewater, heat and CO2 from an industrial facility such as an ethanol plant, and, of course, sunlight. According to Becker, the Shenandoah plant can easily meet the needs of the five acre farm. An ethanol plant with a 65 MMgy production capacity generally produces about 175,000 tons of CO2 annually, he said. The production process being used by BioProcess Algae has a 2:1 CO2-to-algae conversion rate, so the five acre site will only require 400 tons of CO2 on an annual basis to operate. Scaling up the process even further, a 400 acre site, which is BioProcess Algae’s next planned expansion, would use 20 percent of the CO2 produced at a 65 MMgy ethanol plant and would produce 16,000 tons of algae annually.

There is no date set yet for the construction of the 400-acre algae farm, but Becker said the collaborators anticipate a rapid expansion if the five acre project proves successful. “This is a precursor to a much bigger expansion,” he said. “It will allow us to start to develop construction and cost estimates for the larger project. This will tell us a lot about the next expansion project that we do.” The cost of the five-acre project is not being released, but Becker said all of the collaborators have provided funding through 2012 and the project has “very good, solid financial footing.” Eventually, the company plans to expand its algae-growing capabilities to all of Green Plains’ nine ethanol plants and would likely also make its technology available to other ethanol plants and industrial facilities with significant CO2 streams, such as power plants and petroleum refineries.