Ethanol from Algae gets a boost

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Dow chemical has given some backing to a startup, algenolbiofuels, that has a process to create ethanol as a byproduct of algae. This process apparently uses genetically modified cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol. Their goal is 100,000 gallons of ethanol per year. (Seems a bit small actually….) I would hope that the genetically altered algea cannot find a way back out into the wild. The bioreactor apparently is a container with saltwater that has been pumped in from the sea.

The demonstration plant will be in Freeport, Texas.

According to Technology Review, these bacteria do create small amounts of ethanol naturally. In the wild though, it has to be in a dark environment (or anaerobic). Apparently this method doesn’t require the “harvesting” of the algea in order to obtain the ethanol. The harvesting of algae has proven a challenge in complexity (and price) for other algae-ethanol startups.

They say that they expect to be able to produce ethanol for $1.25 per gallon and as a side benefit for each gallon of ethanol produced they have a byproduct of fresh water (remember salt water was one necessary part going into this process.)

In some parts of the world this really could solve multiple problems – fuel availability and more importantly fresh water availability. It would be interesting to see this process compared against other desalination processes.

–Update–

Today I saw this story about a startup that claims to have a process that can generate as much as 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year using algae microorganisms. The company is Joule Biotechnologies and they’re based in Cambrige, MA. With this process genetically engineered algae microorganisms use energy from the sun, consume carbon dioxide and water and create ethanol or other hydrocarbon. Their plans are a pilot project in the Southwest next year with commercial quantities available by 2010 and large scale by 2011. According to the article production on this scale and this method could provide competitive prices even if oil is selling as low as $50 per barrel. (Currently in the 60-70/barrel range.)

They go out of their way to clarify that this is not algae that they are using, but genetically engineered micro-organisms. The product does not have to be refined, and the micro-organisms don’t have to be harvested to obtain the fuel. (Certainly good news for the algae micro-organisms…..)