April 17, 2012

Algaedyne plants a future for renewable fuels

Driving around Kauai, Hawaii, several years ago, Toby Kinkaid spotted a series of smokestacks from a coal-fired electric plant and began wondering what could be done “with all that carbon.”

The Wisconsin-based entrepreneur had already established a national reputation as a solar developer by operating Solardyne.com and Solarquote.com as well as inventing two solar-related products that have been tested at Sandia National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

The idea that started in Kauai led him to study algae and to launch a company with a biomass investor and a St. Paul-based construction company. The result, the Algaedyne Corp., is one of Minnesota’s first efforts in the burgeoning field of algae.

Although still in the developmental phase, the startup has attracted Preston, Minn.-based biofuels investor Thomas Byrne of Earth Renewable Investments LLC. Byrne also helped found the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), a national group promoting algae companies.

The Harris Cos., a mechanical construction and engineering business, is the other partner in Algaedyne. Chief engineer Nick Rosenberry said his company’s interest is “to understand algae from the ground up.”

“We think algae has a place in our energy future, and we want to be able to know how to build plants for the industry,” Rosenberry says.

Harris has built eight 2,000-liter bioreactors, six of which were sold to New Jersey-based Garden State Ethanol for a pilot project using municipal waste to grow algae. Two units also reside at St. Cloud State University, where students and professors in the biology department use them in their research.

Garden State Ethanol found Algaedyne and decided to try the bioreactors in the pilot project. Otherwise, Byrne said, the Preston-based company does not actively court sales.

“We haven’t really done anything to sell the bioreactors,” Byrne said. “It’s really still in the experimental stage. We’re not guaranteeing it can do anything just yet.”

Besides investments from the three partners, Algaedyne has received funding from the Southern Minnesota Initiatives Foundation and Minn-Cal Investments LLC, according to its website.

Although growing algae to produce fuel may be the ultimate goal of Byrne and his partners, that’s not where the money is right now in the industry. Byrne said algae producers can make money in pharmaceuticals and in the aquaculture industry as a potential replacement for fish feedstock.

For now, he’s raising money for Algaedyne with an aim to run a larger demonstration project that would lead to a commercial operation — “without spending millions of dollars.”

That kind of money is being spent by the algae industry’s bigger startups in California, Arizona and Florida. Those companies, along with Algaedyne, are perfecting ways to grow algae just like any agricultural crop.

Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization, said ABO has grown from a handful of organizations to more than 200 companies. A recent ABO survey showed 70 percent of its members think algae biofuels will be commercially available and competitive with fossil fuels by 2020 — and half say algae will cost $3 per gallon or less by then.

“Innovative companies such as Algaedyne are part of a dynamic, 50-state job creation engine that will be tapping into markets for fuel, agricultural products, renewable chemicals — the list goes on,” said Rosenthal in a prepared statement.

Still, it’s a young market. In a column headlined “What’s the Worst Green Tech to be in?” Green Tech Media’s Michael Kanellos wrote last year that separating algae from water “has been an unsolved technical issue since the late ’70s.” Distribution will likely be expensive, too, he wrote, citing former Chevron executive Don Paul’s estimate that a new fuel requires $3 billion and 15 years to get to the market.

So what does algae production look like now? In general, algae companies take one of two approaches involving large, open ponds or enclosed bioreactors, the latter of which is Algaedyne’s method.

One of the key ingredients for algae is carbon dioxide, which helps it flourish. That drew the interest of Kinkaid, who works in the renewable sector because of a passion for reducing global warming. He began experimenting with different sizes of bioreactors to determine which would grow algae the fastest.

His work began with a small 10-gallon bioreactor. Then he experimented with a 500-gallon tank, the size that was sold to Garden State Ethanol. The algae are in water supplemented with specific nutrients and carbon dioxide to assist their growth, he said.

A light-emitting diode (LED) in the bioreactor emits red and blue wavelengths in a process Kinkaid calls “controlled photosynthesis.” Different algae species are deployed for different applications including biofuels and nutraceuticals, he said.

One of Kinkaid’s challenges was to figure out how to avoid inhibiting the growth of the algae below other algae in the controlled environment of a bioreactor. His solution, which he is trying to patent, was light injection technology that moves those red and blue wavelengths into the lower reaches of the tank.

By using the nutrients and the light injection, Kinkaid can harvest half his algae crop every 24 hours. The biofuel is harvested and the remaining biomass — the algae — can be dried and used for livestock feed or pharmaceutical products.

The Algaedyne Corp.’s bio-reactors are being built in the Harris Cos.’ fabrication facility in Zumbrota, Minn. (Submitted photo: Harris Cos.)

Byrne, who earns his living as a consultant to ethanol companies and other renewable energy businesses, has another algae endeavor called Aquaviridis. That company recently signed a deal with Los Angeles-based OriginOil Inc., which developed a technology to extract oil from algae.

Together, the companies say they will build a pilot project this year in the Mexicali Valley in Mexico.

“The algae industry looks a lot like the ethanol industry did in the early years, and I think it has the same potential, maybe even more, as a source of fuel and other products,” Byrne said.

Original post available here.



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