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Better Living Through Chemistry: Dow Boosts Algae Biofuel

Bill DiBenedetto | Thursday July 2nd, 2009 | 1 Comment

Photo Source: Carlos Aviles / jpgmag.com
When Dow Chemical Co. decides to get into the algae biofuel business, it’s a sure sign that algae as a go-to alternative and renewable energy source has entered the big leagues.
Dow this week said it is hooking up with Algenol Biofuels Inc. to construct and operate a pilot-scale algae-based integrated biorefinery that will convert CO2 into ethanol. The planned location covers 24 acres at a Dow site in Freeport, Texas. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Algenol has developed a third generation biofuel that makes ethanol directly from CO2 and seawater using hybrid algae in sealed clear plastic photobioreactors, a process the Bonita Springs, FL company has patented and calls the “Direct to Ethanol” technology. This process produces more than 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. That smokes the 400 gallons of ethanol per acre produced from corn.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Georgia Institute of Technology and Membrane Technology & Research, Inc. are also involved in the project mix with Dow and Algenol. They are contributing science, expertise, and technology to the pilot project, which they say will create a “breakthrough process for ethanol production.”
Algenol has also applied for a grant from the Department of Energy to conduct the pilot. Upon approval of the grant, Dow and the other collaborators will work with Algenol to demonstrate the technology at a level that proves it can be implemented on a commercial scale.
“This project sets the stage for commercial scale production by proving two critical principles: first that ethanol can be made economically without consuming fresh water or displacing valuable farm land better suited to food and feed production; second, that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide can be reduced by capturing CO2 from a variety of industrial sources and using it to produce fuel that can displace conventional, high carbon gasoline,” says Algenol CEO Paul Woods.
The new pilot-scale biorefinery has the potential to produce more than 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year using technology that does not use food as feedstock, does not require arable land or fresh water and absorbs CO2 during production, the company says. Algenol also calculates that the biorefinery will consume two dry tons of CO2 obtained from industrial emissions per day.
In addition to leasing the land for the pilot-scale facility, Dow plans to develop the advanced materials and specialty films for the photobioreactor system.
In addition, Dow will provide technology and expertise related to water treatment solutions and will provide Algenol with access to a CO2 source for the biorefinery from a nearby Dow manufacturing facility. The CO2 will be supplied to the algae in the photobioreactors and will serve as the carbon source for the ethanol produced. The result is a CO2 capture process that converts industrially derived CO2 into more sustainable fuels and chemicals, Dow says.
It was almost exactly one year ago that Dow and NREL agreed on the joint development and evaluation of a process to convert biomass to ethanol as well as a range of other chemical products, through the use of a new mixed alcohol catalyst developed by Dow. (see 3P’s “2nd Gen Ethanol Moves Forward with NREL-Dow Agreement”)
So is Dow now officially off the alcohol and into the algae? Third generation biofuel? What happened to the second generation?

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  • Christopher Calder

    Growing algae to make biodiesel is being touted as a cure-all for all our biofuel problems, but we are still stuck with the fact that algae need solar energy to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. To make biodiesel, algae are used as organic solar panels which output oil instead of electricity. Researchers brag that algae can produce 15 times more fuel per acre of land than growing corn for ethanol, but that still means we would need an impossibly large number of acres (about 133 million acres) of concrete lined open-air algae ponds to meet our highway energy demands. Those schemes that grow algae in closed reactor vessels, without sunlight, necessitate the algae being fed sugars or starches as a source of chemical energy. The sugars or starches must then be made from corn, wheat, beets, or other crop, so you are simply trading ethanol potential to make oil instead of vodka. If we construct genetically engineered super-algae that are capable of out-competing native algae strains that contaminate open air algae ponds, the new gene-modified algae will be immediately carried to lakes, reservoirs, and oceans all over the world in the feathers of migrating birds, with unknown and possibly catastrophic results.