This greenhouse in Shenandoah, Iowa, is among those being used by Green Plains Renewable Energy to grow algae from ethanol byproducts. The harvested algae are then being tested for use as the key ingredient in poultry feed.
They grow from the stuff left over from ethanol production: carbon dioxide, heat, water.
And as it turns out, the algae produced at Green Plains Renewable Energy's ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, might be the key ingredient for poultry feed — not to mention products ranging from biodiesel to the omega-3 supplements on drugstore shelves.
The BioProcess Algae project, a joint venture involving Omaha-based Green Plains and three other companies, began operating on a commercial scale this summer.
Since then, some of the algae harvested from greenhouses lined up across a half-acre area have been sent to agricultural scientists. The goal: Figuring out if they might make animal feed that's as good as or better than the kind made of more typical sources like corn, soybeans and sorghum.
This week, Green Plains announced that the first round of feed trials yielded positive results. Tests led by a University of Illinois professor, Carl Parsons, found that algae meal provided a higher concentration of protein and amino acids to chickens than similar amounts of meal made from corn or soybeans. Samples were also tested by scientists at the University of Missouri.
"It looks like it's got quite a bit of feeding value for poultry," Parsons said.
His group has been doing feed testing for 30 years, but this is the first time algae have come into the picture, Parsons said.
BioProcess Algae CEO Tim Burns said he believes the facility in Shenandoah is the only place where algae are being grown from ethanol byproducts, harvested on a commercial level and used in feed trials.
The algae-based feed will undergo more testing before it's ready to hit the market. But Burns said the results gathered so far are a good indicator of the product's potential for feed — and other products.
Leaders of the BioProcess project hope to dedicate some of the algae for the "neutraceutical" market, which includes cosmetics and supplements. In a couple of weeks, they plan to break ground on five more acres of algae-growing space. Each acre will produce between 40 and 60 tons of algae each year.
Burns says algae are a good replacement for fish meal and fish oil, which is prized for its omega-3 acids. Algae provide the same nutrients but cut out the middle fish, so to speak.
"They're currently grinding up fish, and you're getting fish oil in your omega-3s," Burns said. "Fish are eating the algae, and that's what you're getting."
The BioProcess Algae project is operated by Green Plains along with Clarcor, a Tennessee company that specializes in filtration equipment; a related filtration company, BioProcess H2O; and NTR, an Irish renewable energy group. The companies have not released the total cost of the effort, but they did receive grants totaling more than $4 million from the Iowa Power Board Fund.
The ethanol plant on the site produces 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. With the right infrastructure, that output could produce about 50,000 tons of biomass for feed, neutraceuticals and fuel.
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