In part one of our series on algae-based biofuels, we posited that algae has the potential to make petroleum a thing of the past. In part two, we look at traditional ethanol -- and why a blue-green algae version might fulfill ethanol's promise.
Corn and sugar ethanol failed for numerous reasons. The most obvious one is that while people throughout the globe were starving, here there was a movement to drive cars via staple foods. Coupled with the factor of consuming more energy than it produced, devouring a lot of water in times of droughts, monopolizing millions of acres of agricultural land, and yielding unimpressive numbers of barrels of fuel per acre . . . you begin to understand why ethanol needed government intervention to even get as far as it did.
But companies, scientists, and environmentalists have wised up. And today, Algenol is bringing back a reputable name to the criticized fuel using blue green algae. While all other alga fuel companies are sticking to the biofuels, Algenol is sailing its own course.
To see the face of the future of alga ethanol, one would only need to look toward Algenol, the sole company that has discovered how to make the alternative fuel. Although macro-algae (seaweed) has been fermented for hundreds of year, Algenol has invented a method of fermenting micro-algae, something no one else has discovered and making them true innovators in their field. Through an agreement with Biofields, Algenol has been working towards producing this viable fuel for the past fifteen years, and has found a way using a non-toxic, abundant algae and salt water -- something producers of biodiesel cannot do.
"There's nothing complex, there's nothing expensive about it. It's essentially off-the-shelf technology," says Algenol representative Evan Smith. "We have a relationship with Biofields; they license the technology, they pay us a percentage of the revenue."
Grown within bioreactors, Algenol uses the blue green algae--better known to the science world as cyanobacteria--saltwater, sunlight, and essentially yeast to "bubble [ethanol] out of the air. It's a natural distilling process."
"We look for two things: [an alga's] ability to produce energy and to ensure that they aren't toxic," explained Smith for Algenol's move to use cyanobacteria. "We modify the algae to produce ethanol where it traditionally produces biodiesel."
And compared to more traditional biofuels like biodiesel or biopetroleum, ethanol is more tricky to produce.
It's important to differentiate the fuel types; ethanol and biopetroleum are by no means interchangeable. Ethanol has a thicker consistency--think of condensed milk--and needs to be combined with gasoline in order to work in a normal engine; although, it is possible to modify an engine to run solely off ethanol. So why make it if it doesn't work by itself? Ultimately, as it's cheaper to produce, customers will save at the pump if ethanol is incorporated in their vehicle fuels.
"The cost associated with it, at least the way we do it is based on the inputs, productivity, and how to extract it. Its more difficult to extract it," said Smith. "It separates from the water, then it goes through piping. It's difficult to transport. It evaporates very quickly,"
Besides capturing the volatile substance, Algenol's other problem is finding barren and unusable land contiguous to the ocean. "We use salt water because it's abundant," explained Smith. "Based on the inputs we have, we have no variable cost. All are inputs are algae that are self-grown, [but our] limitations are that we need to be on the coast, on barren land near ocean. The key to us is land."
Finding such landscapes are tough, especially in states like California, which has strict environmental standards and plenty of other wealthy corporations and individuals who are also looking to acquire a piece of coastal property. For that reason, Algenol began production and is currently located on the West Coast of Mexico, and is working with the Mexican government to get their product onto the shelves and into pumps.
"We have a billion gallon facilities in four stages. It's taken fifteen plus years, and the ultimate goal is to get this extremely independent of the niche market," said Smith. "We are anticipating production by the end of this year. [Our algae ethanol] will be commercial this year, and [we will] hopefully acquire land in [the U.S. in] 2009 and early 2010."
Algenol knows that there will be competition with companies like Stellarwind Bio Energy who are producing competitive vehicle fuels and unless an engine is specifically designed for ethanol, the fuel needs to be mixed with a gasoline type liquid in order to run in a normal car. But Algenol is confident in its capabilities to stand alone on the market. "We think we'll be [able to sell] at a dollar per gallon," said Smith.
At about one-fourth the cost of bio-petroleum, ethanol created through algae may appeal to more than the environmentalist set.
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