Algae Tech's Latest Goal: Make Ethanol for Bioplastics

By Eliza Strickland | July 6, 2009 6:00 pm

algae farmAt a Texas industrial site, the vats of chemicals may soon stand adjacent to long tubes filled with algae. Industrial giant Dow Chemical today announced a new partnership with startup company Algenol Biofuels to build a pilot plant, which will use algae to convert carbon dioxide emissions into ethanol. That ethanol could be used either as a biofuel or, eventually, as an ingredient for Dow’s plastics.

Pond scum is one of the hottest trends in green technology, and a few dozen companies are racing to bring algae-based biofuels to the market. But one prominent algae company, GreenFuel, went out of business just a few months ago, leading some commentators to believe that we are a longer way off from commercialization than claimed by breathless algae start-up press releases [Greentech Media]. If Dow and Algenol can bring their plans to fruition, it will be the most compelling argument yet that the renewable energy source does have the potential that its supporters say.

Algenol’s chief executive, Paul Woods, explains that the Texas demonstration project will feature algae growing in 3,100 “bioreactors,” troughs covered with flexible plastic and filled with saltwater. The water is saturated with carbon dioxide, to encourage growth of the algae. “It looks like a long hot dog balloon,” Mr. Woods said. Dow, a maker of specialty plastics, will provide the “balloon” material. The algae, through photosynthesis, convert the carbon dioxide and water into ethanol [a fuel source], oxygen and fresh water [The New York Times].

The three-year-old company Algenol uses a slightly different approach to algae fuel than its competitors. While most algae-to-fuel startups … grow algae so they can process the algae directly into fuel, Algenol collects ethanol vapors from the algae, which involves neither killing the plants nor the use of an expensive refining process [Earth2Tech]. Algenol’s executives think this process may be the key to their success, as other algae companies have foundered on difficulties with harvesting the algae and extracting the oil. Dow and Algenol have asked the Energy Department for $25 million under the stimulus bill, but say they’re committed to building the pilot plant regardless of federal support.

Related Content:
80beats: Forget Biofuel. Is Bioelectricity the Next Big Thing?
80beats: Algae-Filled Greenhouses Aim to Take in CO2 and Turn out Biofuel
80beats: Super-Green, Algae-Derived Jet Fuel Passes Tests With Flying Colors
DISCOVER: The Second Coming of Biofuels
DISCOVER: Life After Oil dives into the ethanol debate

Image: Algenol

  • Christopher Calder

    Growing algae to make biodiesel is being touted as a cure-all for all our biofuel problems, but we are still stuck with the fact that algae need solar energy to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. To make biodiesel, algae are used as organic solar panels which output oil instead of electricity. Researchers brag that algae can produce 15 times more fuel per acre of land than growing corn for ethanol, but that still means we would need an impossibly large number of acres (about 133 million acres) of concrete lined open-air algae ponds to meet our highway energy demands. Those schemes that grow algae in closed reactor vessels, without sunlight, necessitate the algae being fed sugars or starches as a source of chemical energy. The sugars or starches must then be made from corn, wheat, beets, or other crop, so you are simply trading ethanol potential to make oil instead of vodka. If we construct genetically engineered super-algae that are capable of out-competing native algae strains that contaminate open air algae ponds, the new gene-modified algae will be immediately carried to lakes, reservoirs, and oceans all over the world in the feathers of migrating birds, with unknown and possibly catastrophic results.

  • Nick

    Ethanol -> plastic is the only good use of ethanol I’ve heard of yet.

  • Carter

    Besides drinking it, I presume? >=P

    I think you missed the idea where the algae are ‘fed’ CO2, as stated in the article, to stimulate growth and the creation of ethanol vapors. Besides, if the idea turns out not to be the ultimate salvation for our energy needs (I doubt it will, fusion or solar will take over before algae power) at least we have figured out how to make ‘dericious’ algal booze.

  • RZA

    The first commenter probably gets mad at windmills for hitting the occasional bird. Would you rather import oil from a country that wants to kill us? Where does it say that this will not be properly managed? He’s probaly from Venezuela

  • Tim 333


    “acres of concrete lined open-air algae ponds…t grow algae in closed reactor vessels, without sunlight, necessitate the algae being fed sugars or starches as a source of chemical energy.”

    the whole point of the algenol process is you just have a plastic trough in the dessert with optionally waste co2 from power plants in and the alcohol evaporates off. So with a bit of luck it may prove cheap and easy – time will tell.

    Incidentally the Algenol algae are genetically modified to produce alcohol but I doubt they would survive well in the wild


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