Algenol: The elephant in the room – by Eric Wesoff

[USA] I wrote a perspectives piece last week (see Algae Fantasists Predict 1B Gallons Per Year by 2014) on the viability of commercial algal biofuels and received a slew of comments, on and off-line, endorsing my claim that we are a longer way off from commercialization than claimed by breathless algae start-up press releases.

But according to Jim Lane of Biofuels Digest: Paul Woods, the chief executive of algae farmer Algenol is adamant he will produce 250 million gallons per year by 2013.

And according to Lane in email correspondence – when it comes to biofuels from algae, “It really comes down to how one thinks about Algenol. That’s the elephant in the room when it comes to photobioreactors.”

Today Algenol told the New York times that it is building a photobioreactor-based algae-to-ethanol demonstration plant at a Dow Chemical site in Freeport, Texas with plastic material supplied by Dow.  Photobioreactors or PBRs, in Algenol’s case, are simply plastic covered troughs housing a mixture of saltwater, algae, nutrients, and CO2.

Note that algae expert Dr. John Benemann flatly states that photobioreactors “do not work” and are useful only in supplying inoculum.

Algenol’s proposed fuel harvesting method does differ from traditional algae oil extraction methods.  Rather than grow, flocculate, filter, de-water, and extract oil from the algae – Algenol uses a very different approach. Algenol’s “Direct-to-Ethanol” process gathers ethanol produced by algae without destroying the algae and without the necessity of refining oil into biodiesel.  This method, if viable and scalable, has huge potential cost and embedded-energy advantages.

But according to Algenol’s website:

  • Initial proof of science was generated by Dr. John Coleman at the University of Toronto between 1989 and 1999. Since then, the process has been refined to allow algae to tolerate high heat, high salinity, and the alcohol levels present in ethanol production.
  • The algae are metabolically enhanced to produce ethanol while being resistant to high temperature, high salinity, and high ethanol levels, which were previous barriers to ramping to commercial scale volumes.
  • Algenol’s prototype production strains can produce ethanol at a rate of 6,000 gallons/acre/year, and are expected to improve to 10,000 gallons/acre/year by the end of 2009. With further refinement, the algae cells have the potential to increase production rates to 20,000 gallons/acre/year in the future.
  • Algenol only uses algae strains that do not produce human toxins. In addition, the specific algae cells used cannot live in the environment found outside their Capture Technology contained sealed bioreactor.

Although this wording doesn’t use the specific terms – these algae strains are clearly genetically modified – and that might be a hard sell in the U.S.  The food vs. fuel debate was bad press for biofuels and the frankenalgae debate would be even worse.

Algenol was reportedly underwritten with $70 million invested by the CEO and a few partners. Algenol claims to have plans to build a billion gallon per year facility in Mexico with a subsidiary of Mexican-owned BioFields at a cost of $850 million.  Mexico might be a bit more lax about genetically modified algae.

The company has applied for DOE stimulus bill funding.  More details from Lane at Biofuels Digest here.

I’ll close with a comment from another renowned aquaculture and algae expert with more than 30 years of real-world experience:

“Few of the current slew of algae promoters seem to understand the immense energy/financial hurdles that algae fuel production need to overcome to be financially viable alternative fuels and as such their R&D priorities reflect this. As soon as I see an article touting algae’s production of oil per unit area over terrestrial plants – I know the author(s) are clueless about the financial economics of algae fuel processing. As soon as I read about some special process that increases algae production per unit area – PBR’s (that often use more energy than they produce), aphotic production, etc. I know the promoters don’t understand the energy budgets involved in producing and processing algae to fuel.

“Bottom line – in our opinion the reality of economically viable algae fuel production is still quite a few years in the future – unless someone finds a truly novel short cut through the Laws of Thermodynamics and basic economics.”

GTM Research has a brief report on algae players and technical challenges available here.


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