The USA-based firm Algenol has struck a deal with Mexico-based BioFields to grow and process algae in a manner that cost effectively produces ethanol - directly from the culture. This is quite different from the usual algal biofuel processes that use algae to produce biological oil which, after extraction from the algal cells, is used as feedstock for liquid fuel production: often biodiesel. If, as claimed by Algenol, ethanol can be extracted directly from the algal culture media, we suppose that the process may be drastically less capital and energy intensive than competitive algal biofuel processes. No need to pull out biomass, squeeze it dry on a belt press, and extract the oils in still a third processing step.
Algenol plans to make 100 million gallons of ethanol, about the average annual capacity of one traditional US distillery, in Mexico's Sonoran Desert by the end of the 2009. By the end of 2012, it plans to increase that to 1 billion gallons -- more than 10 percent of current ethanol capacity in the United States, the world's top ethanol producer.Another matter of interest:
Algenol operates the world's largest algae library in Baltimore, Maryland to study the organism that can grow in salt or fresh water, and expanding the technique to locations beyond Mexico. The company is targeting to build algae-to-ethanol farms on coasts in the United States.
Comments: After scale up to pilot plant, the process cost and operability factors are estimated. That will generate per-gallon of product, water consumption numbers, for example.
The next step is to complete an engineering design for a commercial plant, obtain the needed construction and operating permits (which in Mexico are probably less formal than in the US, if you get the drift) followed by plant construction, and a startup "shake down" period, during which fine tuning occurs.
All new chemical and biological industrial processes have unanticipated challenges; but this one will be especially interesting because of the potential for superior economics. Exciting stuff.
TreeHugger has covered algal biofuel developments extensively in the last year. For starters see a recent one:- Algal Biofuels Company Working with KLM and Cruise Ships We have a survey of the startups here: 15 Algae Biofuels Startups to Watch