[USA] Times are tough in the algae business.
A few years ago, a Prince George County algae farm — designed to grow the ingredients for environmentally friendly diesel fuel, or biodiesel — drew national attention and a string of dignitaries that included a Virginia governor.
Today, the farm is shut down, and the idea of turning the green slime into greenbacks remains a dream.
Patrick G. Hatcher, an Old Dominion University geochemist who was a major force behind the project, is trying to keep the dream alive.
“We are still actively pursuing the technology and trying to go commercial,” Hatcher said. “Right now is not the best time because the price of gas is cheap, the price of oil is low, and nobody gives a darn about biodiesel anymore.”
He said he hopes to find investors willing to put up $75 million to $100 million to produce biodiesel on a commercial scale.
“To make money, you need to do this on a large scale — thousands of acres,” Hatcher said.
The Prince George algae farm was a project of ODU and the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, a group created by the General Assembly in 2006 to explore alternative energy projects.
The group provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for ODU algae-to-fuel research, including the Prince George pilot project, Hatcher said.
If Hatcher was the brains of the operation, the brawn was Jes Sprouse, a former masonry contractor.
ODU paid Sprouse $100,000 to build the farm, a 1-acre system of algae lagoons on land ODU leased about 20 miles east of Hopewell.
During a visit from the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2008, Sprouse was an evangelist of algae, saying he hoped to make money, ease the country’s reliance on petroleum and help fight global warming. Sprouse said he planned to expand on his own.
While Hatcher continues to work toward producing biodiesel commercially, he has parted with Sprouse. “I don’t know where he is,” Hatcher said. “We broke off connections with him a long time ago.”
“When we first connected with Sprouse, he gave us the impression he had a capitalization plan” — to raise money to expand — “which fizzled out and didn’t work,” Hatcher said. “So basically we said it’s not working and we’ll move on.”
In 2009, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk quoted Sprouse as saying he lost about $100,000 in the effort.
Sprouse could not be reached for comment for this article.
Hatcher and other ODU researchers have patented a process that involves growing oil-rich algae, harvesting it, condensing it into a paste and then putting it into a device like a pressure cooker that extracts the oil.
Across the country, others are trying to turn algae into an alternative fuel, but they also are being hurt by the current low prices of conventional fuel, Hatcher said.
In 2008, when the algae farm opened, the price of diesel fuel averaged $3.91 per gallon nationally and topped $4 at times, according to the auto group AAA. The price last week was about $2.50.
Bill Robertson, chairman of the Prince George Board of Supervisors, said he was sorry the algae farm has not had economic success.
“A lot of times things in theory work great on paper and, in actuality, they don’t,” Robertson said. “And sometimes they don’t work very good on paper, and whoever is doing it makes a great business out of it. You’ll never know if you don’t try.”
The Prince George project drew attention from regional and national media, including Popular Mechanics magazine. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and other dignitaries attended a ribbon-cutting there in 2008.
A news item on ODU’s website in 2008 said, “If the pilot project is successful, dozens of ponds could be dug on the property and (the farm) could become the first commercial facility of its kind in the country.”
It never happened.
But Hatcher said, “It was a demonstration (project). We never claimed that it would be used for production. It’s not designed that way. It’s designed for research.”
The effort probably produced less than a gallon of biodiesel, Hatcher said.
Still, he felt the algae farm was a success because it provided a place for students to do research, among other benefits.
Activity at the farm was scaled back around 2010 because state funding dropped, Hatcher said. The farm was mothballed about a year ago but could be “fired back up” if someone invests money to run it, he said.
Hopewell City Manager Mark Haley formerly ran the regional wastewater treatment plant in that city. He said the plant was not involved in the Prince George project but experimented on its own with using algae in its treatment process.
“Research is still ongoing all over the U.S., and the biofuel community and the wastewater community have finally come to realize that they should be collaborating,” Haley said.
Hatcher, 67, said he believes in the future of algae-based biofuels but added: “At my age, I probably won’t see this become a reality.”
Photo: Jes Sprouse a masonry contractor an algae farmer. He grows algae in a pond and sends it to ODU, where it is made into biodiesel fuel. Seed tanks to the left and the meandering pond makes up the operation.
View original article at: Old Dominion University geochemist floats hope of reviving algae-to-fuel farm