July 28, 2009

Claflin hopes to grow algae for fuel source

By Gene Zaleski, The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg, S.C.

ORANGEBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA: A Claflin University spin-off is nearing the completion of its study into the feasibility of developing an alternative fuel plant and research park.

Organic Bio-Energy Inc., a Claflin spin-off, and Greer-based Green Energy Partners joined together in April 2008 to study the feasibility of building a $75 million, 35-acre biofuel plant/research park at the John W. Matthews Industrial Park at the corner of U.S. 176 and U.S. 301.

Now the outstanding question remains: Will the project become reality?

Dr. Rebecca Bullard-Dillard hopes so. She's Organic Bio-Energy's vice president for research and chair of the Claflin biology department.

"At present, all parties are enthusiastic and working toward bringing the project to fruition if the final decision is a 'go,'" Bullard-Dillard said. "Alternative energies are going to have to emerge if we are going to meet the demands of our economy.

"The ability to participate in that opening global market for the county of Orangeburg would be a very significant occurrence."

The feasibility study is 95 percent complete, she said.

In addition to Claflin, the Orangeburg County Development Commission and park developers would all be partners in the project, Bullard-Dillard said.

She declined to give details on discussions or specifics about the project's park developers.

OCDC Executive Director Gregg Robinson also declined to comment on, "projects we may or may not be working on."

"We have some exciting green energy opportunities that are considering Orangeburg County," Robinson said. "We are working with Claflin University and I am excited about the technology coming out of one of our great institutions."

The county has continued to look for ways to tap into alternative fuel possibilities, Robinson said.

"We are trying to do our best to bridge the gap between agriculture and advanced science," he said.

"We see this as the future of research and it is critical we make a contribution in this area," said Vivian Glover, Claflin University assistant vice president for communications.

Bullard-Dillard hopes to see a ground-breaking in early 2010 with operations starting in the summer of 2011.

When operational, the annual output would be 4 million gallons of synthetic biodiesel, 1 million gallons of biobutanol in the first stage of the process and 44 megawatts of electricity.

The university estimates the project could create 100 jobs over a five-year period from agricultural workers to loggers.

Bullard-Dillard declined comment on specific companies engaged in the project due to contractual arrangements.

One of the processes that will be examined will be algae propagation. Algae can extract carbon dioxide from exhaust and convert it to sugars via photosynthesis. About two tons of algae can remove one ton of carbon dioxide.

Once the algae are harvested, they can be converted to ethanol or biodiesel.

The site could also include other alternative energy projects, such as biofuel production facilities that will use cellulosic materials as feedstock.

Claflin's project received an $180,000 grant through the S.C. Department of Agriculture and the S.C. Energy Office in April 2008. Despite constitutional questions related to the passage of a renewable energy grant benefiting the project, it is still moving forward.

In June 2008, Greenville businessman Edward "Ned" Sloan successfully argued that the grants measure was a part of a bill that addressed a slew of unrelated items. Sloan said the energy grants were bobtailed onto a bill having to do with job tax credits.

The S.C. Supreme Court struck down more than $2 million in renewable energy grants previously approved across the state.

But fortunately for Bio-Energy Inc. and GEP, an appellate court reviewed the matter and decided the first two rounds of grant funding -- of which the Orangeburg County project was a part -- could go through.

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