Turning algae into ethanol, and gold
Jun 11, 2008 - Carli Ghelfi - Cleantech Group
No ponds, no fresh water, no harvesting, no oils. One
algal biofuel company says it's found a way to convert
algae directly into ethanol on the cheap.
Is it, in fact, a watershed in biofuels from algae?
Naples, Fla.-based Algenol Biofuels says it has found
a way to inexpensively bring third-generation biofuels
to industrial scale.
And, unlike most algal biofuel companies, it's apparently
got a licensing deal for an $850 million project to show
The company believes its seawater-based process can generate
up to a billion gallons of algal ethanol per year from
a facility in Mexico.
"We're not in the biodiesel business, the lipids business
or oil business," according to CEO Paul Woods. "We believe
we have the most advanced third-generation technology.
Our process is completely different."
Algenol claims to use algae, sunlight, CO2 and seawater
in closed bioreactors to produce ethanol, not the biodiesel
most conventional algae companies are pursuing.
Woods told Cleantech Group today that because his company
does not use freshwater and does not harvest the algae,
the process is much less expensive.
"You have to do it cheaply, or you have no process,"
Woods did not specify how cheap, however.
With a reported 11 years of research and 10 years of
patents under its belt, Algenol formally introduced itself
and an $850 million project with Sonora Fields S.A.P.I.
de C.V., a wholly owned subsidiary of Mexican-owned BioFields.
The privately-funded company said it is expecting yields
of 6,000 gallons per acre per year, and expects to increase
that figure to 10,000 by year end.
By contrast, corn yields approximately 360 gallons per
acre per year, and sugarcane 890 gallons, according to
"Basically we can take in 1.5 million tons of CO2 and
convert it into 100 million gallons of ethanol," said
"We will be the largest consumer of CO2 on the planet."
The Algenol process occurs in bioreactors that are three-feet
by fifty-feet and shaped like soda bottles, said Woods.
According to Woods, during the process, algae consumes
sunlight and more than 90 percent of the system's CO2
through photosynthesis, wherein the sugars are converted
into ethanol. The ethanol is immediately pumped out and
evaporates into the bioreactor which is captured every
"This process overcomes the enormous problems other companies
face," said Woods. "We don't use food. We don't use feedstock.
We don't use freshwater," emphasized Woods. "All this
really helps the cost structure."
When asked why the company, which was founded in 2006,
finally decided to reveal itself, Woods said that it was
keen on keeping mum while it was bringing the process
to scale, which has been a difficult feat in the algal
Companies like LiveFuels, GreenFuel Technologies, Aquaflow
Bionomic, PetroAlgae and others have all experienced ebb
and flow when it comes to announcing commercial scale
The only other algal biofuel company touting 'scale'
production is San Francisco-based Solazyme, which, coincidentally,
today announced its microalgae-derived fuel has become
the first algal-based biodiesel to pass the American Society
for Testing and Materials D-975 specifications.
Solazyme had no comment on Algenol's development, but
has experienced momentum in commercializing its fuel.
At the beginning of this year, Solazyme said it signed
a biodiesel feedstock development and testing agreement
with Chevron Technology Ventures (see Solazyme to work
with Chevron on algae fuel).
Last summer it announced a similar deal with Seattle-based
Imperium Renewables, a company which shelved its planned
IPO earlier this year (see Solazyme to supply algae oil
to Imperium and Imperium Renewables puts IPO on hold).
Woods said a production facility in Sonora, Mexico is
expected to be online at the end of 2009, scaling to an
anticipated 1 billion gallons in four-and-a-half years,
involving some 3.5 million bioreactors.
The licensing agreement with Mexico's Biofields reportedly
involves a deal to sell the ethanol to the Mexican government.
"We're making a significant departure from other technologies
because we're making ethanol now, and will be selling
it next year," continued Woods.
"I think we will be supplying the cheapest fuel on the
In an effort to make waves with the U.S. government,
Woods visited Washington D.C. last week to formally introduce
his technology and explain how there are other ways to
ethanol than just cellulosic ethanol.
Since its inception in 2006, the privately funded company
has seen $70 million in investments, with zero venture
capital money to its name, said Woods.
He explained that the majority of the money comes from
the founders, of whom the majority has made successful
exits as former CEOs from the natural gas and pharmaceutical