May 13, 2008

Turning algae into oil

A farm in Western Indian River County is growing a crop that may become the next big biofuel: algae.

Fred Tennant is Vice President of Business Development for PetroAlgae, LLC.

He says researchers at Arizona State University identified a hybrid species of algae that keeps roughly half its weight in oil. Tennant's company, PetroAlgae, has developed a system to extract the oil from each algae cell. The only byproduct, he says, is a powdery algae "meal" that is high in protein and can be used as animal feed.

Tennant says one of the most attractive aspects of algae as a biofuel is its speedy growth. To make ethanol from corn or biodiesel from soybeans it takes a year to grow a crop. But Tennant says with algae he can go from seed to harvest in just two days.

His Fellsmere farm is a research and development facility for PetroAlgae. He calls it "America's oil farm." Long tubes of bubbling green solution line the property. He feeds the algae with carbon dioxide, which he says is another one of its benefits - it consumes what most of us consider a waste product.

Once the algae is harvested, technicians run it through a series of machines, including a high-powered centrifuge, to break down the cells and separate the oil from the water, alcohol and solids.

Tennant says at peak efficiency, he can convert an acre of algae into 14,000 gallons of oil each year. He envisions building a PetroAlgae farm along side a power plant. He says the power plant could use the algae generated oil as fuel, and the algae could, in turn, consume the carbon dioxide that the plant burns off as emissions.

He says PetroAlgae is talking with power companies in the U.S. and abroad about forming partnerships. He expects his product will be ready to go to market some time in 2009.

Jerry Karnas of the Environmental Defense Fund, praises PetroAlgae as one of 9 Florida companies that are working on solutions to combat climate change. The Environmental Defense Fund is highlighting PetroAlgae in a statewide advertising campaign called "Florida's Faces of Climate Change."

The biggest question hanging over the algae to oil idea is whether it can be produced cheaply enough to compete with other sources of biodiesel or with standard diesel fuel. Tennant calls that the "hundred billion dollar" question.

Karnas says if the U.S. were to put caps on greenhouse gas emissions, then a technology like PetroAlgae's would achieve instant success because it burns cleaner than fossil fuels.

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