Issue: Jul 2009

Ethanol team


by Bob Brooks

A system that produces low cost ethanol without use of crop land or fresh water and which absorbs CO2 will be demonstrated at a 100,000 gallon per year pilot plant at a Dow Texas facility planed for start-up in 2010 or early 2011. It will create or save 300 jobs. The program team consists of Dow Chemical Company, Algenol Biofuels, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Georgia Institute of Technology and Membrane Technology & Research (MTR).

The system is based on technology developed by Algenol termed “direct-to-ethanol” which does not grow and harvest algae for extraction of its oil for processing into ethanol. Instead, the Algenol system cultivates algae in seawater which produces ethanol vapors which are continuously condensed directly into fuel. Algae growth is in seawater fed with enzymes, nutrients and CO2 in plastic “bioreactors” 50 X 5 X 1.5 ft. exposed to sunlight.

Algenol CEO Paul Woods told AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRIES an economic analysis indicates that when constructed, a facility with up to 1 billion gallon/year capacity will have total revenue over $700 million/year and will represent 2,800 permanent jobs. Perhaps 30 such facilities are seen possible in the U.S. Woods says initial facility cost is $4.00 to $4.50 per ethanol gallon capacity. He points out while this is nearly twice the cost of a corn ethanol processing plant, corn plant cost does not include related corn farming, fertilizing, harvesting and other operations before processing into ethanol.

The team has applied for pilot plant funding from the Department of Energy in addition to which Algenol is reportedly investing $25 million of its own money. (Algenol is privately owned). Michigan Tech will contribute technology for separation of CO2 from other gases and for CO2 delivery systems. MTR will provide its BioSep system for ethanol/water separation.

Although the primary focus of the team is ethanol as fuel, DOW is also interested in ethanol as raw material for bio plastics and for the reason that ethanol fuel represents a large potential reduction in the environmental CO2 problem. Woods indicates that for each 100 gallons of algae related ethanol produced by the Algenol system, one ton of CO2 is used... Algenol ethanol production therefore becomes a way for produces of CO2 to have it used rather than dispose it via sequestration in the ground at an estimated average cost of $40 per ton, according to Woods. ..

Aside from providing a use for CO2, Algenol algae based ethanol is certain to become a major item of environmental and social interest since it does not use crop land, petroleum based fertilizer or fresh water. In fact, Woods points out that for each gallon of ethanol, one gallon of fresh water is produced (i.e., extracted from the seawater used)

The Mexican firm, BioFields is already under way in that country with construction of a facility based on the Algenol system. The venture now with Dow and others raises the interesting question whether firms in other countries will also seek licenses to use Algenol technology

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