At Algenol, algae is combined with carbon dioxide, salt water and sunlight in Algenol's proprietary photobioreactor system to produce thousands of gallons of fuel per acre.
Using Algae to Produce Four Key Fuels
Paul Woods | Algenol Biofuels
Can you explain a bit about the processes involved in using algae to produce fuel?
To produce our fuel we rely on two things – our enhanced vertical reactor system and our blue-green algae, optimized for fuel production. Combined, the two allow us to maximize yields of 8,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, nearly 20X the yield of corn ethanol and 10X the yield of ethanol from sugar cane.
The process itself is quite simple. Converting algae into the four most important fuels (ethanol, gasoline, jet, and diesel) begins in the lab with a single algae cell; algae reproduce and grow very quickly. Once the algae is to scale it is moved outdoors where it is combined with carbon dioxide, salt water and sunlight in Algenol’s proprietary photobioreactor system to produce thousands of gallons of fuel per acre.
Many years ago, this outdoor system was horizontal in design, but as we’ve enhanced production techniques, it has evolved into a vertical reactor system resembling oversized intravenous bags, positioned like hanging file folders, yielding far better results. These “IV bags” with rounded channels optimize the capabilities of algae and allow the maximum number of cells access to sunlight. The shape of the bags combined with the new vertical layout delivers 8,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, by far the best in the industry.
Are you close to being commercial?
2014 is a big year for algae-based biofuels. We recently expanded our current headquarters in Ft. Myers, Florida and we’re looking to invest an estimated $50 million in a manufacturing plant for the plastics used in our modular photobioreactor bags. Much more exciting developments are to come. We are, right now, planning and siting a commercial facility to begin operations in 2015.
Politically speaking, there are still some hurdles in place. This technology is new which means new permitting, rules and regulations are needed to get these facilities built. We’re not asking for special treatment, mandates or subsidies, but we do need politicians to understand how important cheaper, greener fuel is to the community and the country as a whole. Once they do, we hope they help us get this fuel to the pump without further delay.
What is the cost of your fuel?
Our vertical reactor system and improved algae allow us to produce 8,000 gallons per acre per year at $1.27. For customers, our fuel would mean savings of 75 cents per gallon at the pump.
What is the carbon footprint and environmental impact of your technology?
Algenol has an extremely low carbon footprint for a variety of reasons. Our process achieves an energy balance of more than three to one and a lifecycle carbon footprint that is a 60-80 percent reduction compared to petroleum based fuels.
In the U.S., 3,600 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted from stationary sources alone, never mind the additional CO2 from vehicles. At Algenol, we buy the carbon dioxide that other industries are producing and feed it to the algae in our outdoor system; we hope to purchase 500-1000 million metric tonnes of CO2 annually. With our algae, one tonne of CO2 results in 144 gallons of advanced fuels – 125 gallons of ethanol, eight gallons of diesel, six gallons of jet fuel and five gallons of gasoline. Through this process, we are displacing fossil fuels and reducing CO2 emissions on a national scale.
Additionally, Algenol uses only saltwater in the fuel production process. For every gallon of fuel produced using the DIRECT TO ETHANOL process, 1.5 gallons of fresh water are also produced. Other biofuels, like corn ethanol, can require up to 15 gallons of fresh water to make a single gallon of fuel. With droughts and fresh water shortages across the globe, we need to conserve this precious resource as much as possible. In addition, Algenol fuel production can occur on marginal rather than agricultural land. Instead of using fertile farmland to grow corn for fuel, our technology allows farmland to grow food instead.
What are some of the applications that you see as best suited to use your new fuel?
There are many rumors that ethanol is not compatible with cars and many believe that it hurts their engines. Is ethanol for all vehicles? No. It is not ideal for small engines, boats and motorcycles. However, every car built in the last 13 years can safely use fuel up to E15 and many people may not know that half of American built cars on the road today can take up to E85. High performance engines like NASCAR and Indy already run on an E15 blend and Formula One cars have run on alcohol fuels for a long time now.
Many car companies admit that if they had enough E85 and there was certainty that a customer would buy it at the pump, they have the ability to make a car engine go farther on a gallon of E85 than regular gasoline. With our fuel production, the savings on every gallon, it makes sense for consumers and the auto industry to begin thinking much more seriously about moving toward E85 flex fuel vehicles.
What portion of the energy pie do you think algae fuel could achieve in the next 10 to 20 years?
One-third of our fuels can come from algae. Algenol, the cleanest and most cost-effective biofuel, receives only 0.07 percent of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) budget. That’s $25 million to date out of a total annual budget of $26 billion, while solar and cellulose receive billions of dollars. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage, but it’s becoming clear that our technology is the most promising out there with a huge potential to disrupt the traditional petroleum fuels market. As discussed, it’s the one of the greenest of the biofuels, and most importantly, the only one that can make fuel below market price.
We need the DOE to reprioritize spending and take a closer look at how Algenol fits into the overall energy picture. Once they refocus and help pathways get approved with other government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency, we believe that our fuel will become a significant portion of the energy pie.
Paul Woods is the CEO of Algenol. Algenol’s patented technology enables the production of the four most important fuels (ethanol, gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel) for around $1.27 per gallon each using proprietary algae, sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater at production levels of 8,000 total gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year. Algenol's technology produces high yields and relies on Algenol’s patented photobioreactors and proprietary downstream techniques for low-cost fuel production. These novel, low-cost techniques have the added benefit of consuming carbon dioxide from industrial sources, not using farmland or food crops and being able to provide freshwater.
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