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Take it to the Limit: Algenol and rising yields in advanced biofuels

| September 25, 2012

Algenol hits 7000 gallon per acre mark in field operations. What’s the impact for Algenol, for energy independence, for the cost of transport fuel?

Today in the Digest, we put you on the highway, and show you the signs – as producers take it to the limit, one more time.

Yesterday, in the opening plenary session at the Algae Biomass Summit, Algenol CEO Paul Woods revealed that the company, at its 4-acre, outdoor Process Development Unit in Lee County, Florida, has achieved continuous production of ethanol at the 7,000 gallon per acre level.

That’s a substantial increase over the company’s original target of 6,000 gpa. Not to mention that targets have been replaced, in this case, by hard data from outdoor operation under normal operating conditions.

The impacts could take us a long, long ways down a highly positive road. But, before we consider the potential impact on energy independence, let’s go back and review Algenol’s technology.

The Algenol backstory

In its direct-to-ethanol system, Algenol uses cyanobacteria, which they have enhanced at their labs in Florida and the Netherlands. They have overexpressed the fermentation pathway enzymes, allowing each cell to channel carbon into ethanol production.

The cyanobacteria are loaded into a unique, low-cost closed, flexible plastic film photobioreactor (PBR). Each individual PBR consists of ports for ethanol collection and the introduction of CO2 and nutrients, plus a mixing system and ethanol collection rails.

So, the direct-to-ethanol system first takes advantage of cyanobacteria’s ability to make sugar (pyruvate) from CO2 and saltwater via photosynthesis. Then, ethanol is secreted from the cell into the saltwater medium. As the day progresses, and the solar radiation intensifies, ethanol concentrations build up and the ethanol itself evaporates into the “head space” inside the PBR. As the sun recedes, evaporated ethanol and water condenses into droplets, which run along the plastic walls and into the ethanol collection rails, where it is ported out of the PBR – and the remaining water and ethanol are separated externally.

Next steps for Algenol

For this technology, the next step is the completion of its 36 acre Integrated Biorefinery, scheduled to begin operations in Q1 2013. The 36-acre IBR will provide a small-scale example of a fully integrated commercial facility and according to Algenol, “will serve as a testing facility as we work with partners to integrate technologies – for the conversion of biomass and ethanol into jet and diesel fuel – into the direct-to-ethanol process.

Does this sound something like Joule?

For those who have been following the Joule Unlimited story, there are some very similar elements. First, they are both using a modified microorganism to directly synthesize molecules from sunlight, CO2 and seawater. Both have focused on innovative, low-cost, closed photobioreactor systems. Both have a no-kill technology – rather than having to kill plants, trees or algae in order to extract value, the organisms secrete the target molecules, which are then collected and purified. They are in continuous production, rather than requiring batch-loading of biomass, enzymes or what have you. Both have targeted ethanol as a first step molecule, and have options to produce diesel and jet fuel as well. Both have extravagantly high yields, and correspondingly crazy-low operating costs per gallon.

There are differences. First, they have different production systems and microorganisms. Algenol is farther ahead in deploying its technology – already at the 4-acre scale, whereas Joule is just now deploying its first completed production capsules. Joule has been seeing lab yields in the 15,000 gallon per acre from its system, about double what Algenol has now been able to achieve in the field – but there’s some apples-to-oranges in comparing lab results to field results. We understand Joule’s microorganisms go directly to diesel molecule production rather than using a secondary process.

Yields 10X of (the best of) first-gen biofuels

What is striking about both is the confirmation, from two different technologies, that yields of an order of magnitude higher than that achieved with terrestrial plants appear to be achievable with these next-generation systems. More importantly, these are yields that can be achieved with economically-feasible photobioreactor units and are confirmed in the field using commercial units under normal operating conditions.

Let’s look at 2025 and its potential

According to a presentation made yesterday by Dr. Dana Christensen, Deputy Laboratory Director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, auto manufacturers have indicated to NREL that they can support, in next-gen vehicles, optimizing engines for E30 ethanol that will have comparable mileage to gasoline, by taking advantage of ethanol’s superior octane and power properties to offset the lower energy density.

And, let’s use the 2025 CAFE standards (54.5 miles per gallon) that have recently been agreed by the US auto industry and the Obama Administration (today, fleetwide fuel economy is at 25 miles per gallon).

If the US is using roughly 135 billion gallons of gasoline, today, with a 10 percent increase in population and using the CAFE targets, consumption should be somewhere in the 68 billion gallon range in 2025.

Were E30 pumps and engines available, that’s a capacity to absorb 20 billion gallons of ethanol in the market.

First-gen vs next-gen

Using the corn patch, it would take roughly 32 million acres to produce 15 billion acres of corn-starch ethanol under the RFS2 cap, and if the current generation of cellulosic ethanol technologies are utilized (which generate 200-2000 gallons of ethanol per acre of biomass, depending on the feedstock) – you need another 2.5-25 million acres of land to produce the remainder. Total – somewhere between 35 and 57 million acres. 35 million acres is an area the size of New York State; 57 million is a little smaller than Minnesota.

Now, let’s look at the same kinds of scenarios using a widely-deployed Algenol technology. You need 2.8 million acres, and no freshwater. That’s about half the size of California’s San Bernardino County.

Impact on energy independence

Well, the combination of the production potential from these technologies – and the agreed CAFE standards – well, it’s becoming a no-brainer to foresee that, should the capital be available, the US has put itself into a position to achieve complete energy independence – in terms of transportation fuel – by 2025. Much sooner than once thought possible.

How is that possible? Well, consider that the US today imports roughly 45 percent of its petroleum. Applying that to the gasoline fraction, that’s roughly 74 billion gallons of domestic  gasoline production – more than the country is expected to need, and biofuels production

The bottom line. In a world of rising petroleum production and falling US demand, why biofuels at all?

Three reasons. First, not every country is so blessed with energy resources, and global energy demand is increasing fast.

Second, cost. Yep, Algenol continues to target a cost of around $1.50-$1.70 per gallon at current productivities (see here), while Joule is looking at costs around $1.00 per gallon. Both substantially lower than the current $2.93 wholesale cost of gasoline on a BTU basis.

Third. Extravagant reduction of stress on climate and on resources. For one thing, might be a good idea to save some of that petroleum for future generations, so long as a lower-cost, lower-impact fuel is available as an alternative, that drops right into the current infrastructure.

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