November 18, 2011

Entrepreneur brews up algae to slake energy demand

By TOM JACKSON | The Tampa Tribune

Transportation costs are much on our minds these days as we contemplate the wallet-lightening experience of going home — wherever that is — for Thanksgiving. Airfare is breathtaking and, according to AAA, regular gasoline is 51 cents higher than it was last year. (We'd mention trains and buses, but you almost can't get from here to there on either.)

What we would like to believe, knees buckling as we retrieve the receipt from our latest fill-up, is the solution to all our energy demands — ideally, the clean, green, renewable, domestic and economical solution — is within our grasp.

I mean, we've all seen the stories about the truck fueled on recycled French fry oil and the annual competition among solar-powered cars built by college kids. Nonetheless, to get from here to there, we're still burning Jurassic Period plant life. What's the holdup?

Dean Tsoupeis hopes to provide an answer. Indeed, he hopes to provide the answer.

If, as the un-degreed former owner of a screen-printing company, Tsoupeis (soo-PACE) seems an unlikely candidate to solve the unquenchable energy demands of 7 billion busy humans, well, David made an unlikely foil for Goliath, and he didn't have a college education, either.

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What Tsoupeis has had since his days at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg is a passion for entrepreneurial environmentalism. Now 40, he is seven years past the epiphany that led him to the brink, potentially, of producing something big out of something microscopically small.

The epiphany dawned as Tsoupeis sat out a red light behind a large diesel truck choking on exhaust that poured through the vents of his broken air conditioner. There had to be a better way, he muttered to himself. Well, who hasn't? But unlike the rest of us, Tsoupeis vowed to identify and produce a marketable solution.

Fast forward seven years to a scruffy patch of land on a gravel lane next to a tree farm off Ridge Road. Here, having huddled persistently with scientists and engineers in the field of biofuels, Tsoupeis' company, Tampa-based Culturing Solutions, has established the "Phyta-Platform Photobioreactor."

That would be, in layman's terms, an algae farm. Not just any algae farm, mind you, but one designed to grow it in prodigious, robust, pristine crops at virtually any latitude — 300 percent faster than previously existing technology.

The process, unveiled Thursday, involves a circulating pump, racks of UV-resistant pipe, a silicon membrane that dissolves CO2 into the solution containing the algae — algae devour the stuff — and a hot-house pond.

Computer sensors deliver constant updates and allow the caretaker to address the system's needs remotely. This isn't your granddad's algae farm.

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OK, but why algae? To hear Tsoupeis rhapsodize, there's almost nothing it can't do. Introduced into the primordial soup, algae sucked up CO2 and expelled oxygen, creating the atmosphere that made the planet safe for more sophisticated air-breathing creatures. Now, he says, "Algae may save the atmosphere."

Properly (and, for the moment, expensively) processed, the system laid out across 1,000 acres would produce 30,000 gallons of bio-oil annually, Tsoupeis projects. Add any number of useful byproducts, from livestock feed to nutraceuticals (food additives that provide health or medical benefits) to manufacturing and cosmetic ingredients, and there's virtually nothing, it seems, that algae can't do.

Small wonder, then, that Tsoupeis' system has attracted investors from as far away as India and South Africa.

Of course, its sexiness is in its potential for endless supplies of biofuel. As to that, Tsoupeis concedes there are practical hurdles to clear. But it's nothing $130-a-barrel crude oil and universal carbon caps couldn't hurry along.

In the meantime, he is counting on technology improvements and economies of scale to bring the cost of algae-oil production into line with, if not beat, current crop-driven fuels and fuel supplements, such as ethanol.

All of which is to say, we're stuck, this Thanksgiving, with the fuels of the 20th century. But if Tsoupeis is right, the day we think the same way about fossil fuels and buggy whips may be closer than over the river and through the woods.

Original post available here.

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