Holly Jessen: I have green expectations for algae

I really enjoyed my conversation with Paul Woods, CEO of Algenol. His passion for algae-to-ethanol production is infectious.

You can read my story about what Algenol is doing in the April issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine. The magazine is at the printers now and will start arriving on our subscribers’ desks in the next few weeks. The story, Green Expectations, was also just published on our website this morning.

There are a few interesting details Woods told me that didn’t make it into the story. I thought I’d share those with you today.

The technology produces ethanol in hanging clear plastic bags, which are filled with algae inoculated saltwater. As the algae grows, fed with sunlight and CO2, ethanol is produced. When the process is complete, the bag is drained and ethanol and seawater go through a two-step separation process.

At that point, hydrothermal liquefaction can be used to turn the leftover spent algae into green crude. Existing petroleum refineries can currently produce mostly gasoline and diesel and some jet fuel from green crude. that’s what Algenol wants to do with the material, send it to a refinery for fractionation into other fuels.

Sounds straightforward, right? Unfortunately, this is where current policies are complicating matters. Right now, with the way the rules are written, to process the material, the algae production plant would have to be collocated with the refinery. “And that’s just foolishness,” Woods told me. “Can you imagine if every oil well had to be inside the battery limits of the refinery? It makes absolutely no sense. Oil is drilled somewhere else and then it is delivered to the refinery. That’s how it works.”

This silly rule only applies to renewable fuels, Woods says, and needs to be changed immediately. It’s something that has an impact on the corn-ethanol industry too, as the same hydrothermal liquefaction technology can also be used to make green crude from corn stover. Multiple parties, including Algenol, are currently working with the U.S. EPA and the White House in an effort to get the rule changed, he said, adding that he hopes commons sense will prevail soon.

Woods also talked to me about expensive carbon capture programs, for which CO2 is stored underground. Woods has had multiple meetings at the White House and with EPA staff and he said his sense is that these people genuinely want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But so many are fighting the idea of carbon capture and storage, even if climate change is real.  “I think it’s all because nobody wants to pay this enormous bill,” he said, adding that there’s a lot of incentive to confuse the climate change issue from those that are responsible to pay that bill. “If climate change reduction was free I don’t think we’d have this kind of massive debate that we do.”

That’s where Algenol’s very different approach to carbon mitigation can be a game changer. Rather than spending so much money for carbon capture programs, the company is proposing harnessing CO2 to produce a valuable transportation fuel.

I’m really looking forward to the day when we can report that the company successfully collocated with a Florida power plant and is producing ethanol from algae. Personally, I think it would be even cooler to see CO2 produced at an ethanol plant captured and used to produce more ethanol, whether it’s onsite or the CO2 is shipped somewhere else.

 

View original article at: I have green expectations for algae

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