Ebony and ivory: The BioProcess Algae Story

September 26, 2012 |

In Shenandoah, white biotechnology meets black carbon remediation, and algae production comes to the Corn Belt, as BioProcess Algae and Green Plains Renewable Energy aim for a “lowest-cost winner” in algae biofuels.

In Europe they call “white biotechnology” what is elsewhere known as “industrial biotechnology”, or around the Corn belt as “the technology behind corn starch fermentation”, or in Shenandoah, Iowa (to many) as “the place where Dad (or Mom) works” or “the ethanol plant we sell our corn too.”

It’s been a tough enough season in Iowa this year for growers, fighting a persistent and gut-wrenching drought, but on the whole they’ve had a prosperous decade thanks to corn starch fermentation and the ethanol boom. It’s built a floor under corn prices and given growers in Page County a short delivery run. They’ve helped make, in turn, the 100 million gallon Green Plains Renewable Energy plant in Shenandoah the most efficient and profitable in the GPRE fleet.

But carbon dioxide emissions remain. In fact, large corn ethanol plants are considered “major emitters” under EPA rules because one-third of the corn kernel, by weight, is released as carbon dioxide during fermentation. About 19 pounds of it per bushel.

To the EPA, an emission. To Green Plains Renewable Energy, an opportunity. Why not capture the emissions, feed CO2 to algae, and turn a problem into a profit center?

Thus was a partnership born with BioProcess Algae. Ebony and ivory – white biotechnology and carbon remediation – working together in harmony. It’s a powerful vision.

In the Digest’s Biorefinery Project of the Future series we wrote about why corn ethanol plants were great places to begin developing an advanced biofuels. We noted that “existing first-generation fermentation biofuels require no re-invention of feedstock systems, no exotic first-of-kind processing technology, no fuel certification or from-scratch market development. They are financeable.”

This summer, that vision has taken a major series of steps forward as the BioProcess Algae project advances from a small pilot system to a 5-acre demonstration including all components systems that lead from CO2 capture through algae growth, harvest, and extraction.

The BioProcess Algae projects builds out to five-acre scale in Shenandoah, Iowa

Earlier this summer, in a brief review of BioProcess Algae, we wrote:

“Three things are especially notable about the project.

First, it has proven that it can successfully utilize excess CO2 and process heat from the Shenandoah ethanol plant to produce microalgae.

Second, it has proven (at pilot scale) that its unique growth media can work – and this is an important breakthrough, because the company is growing microalgae out of solution, using a biofilm. The thesis is that this approach will offer a high surface area to enhance light penetration, productivity, harvest density and gas transfer. Once the algae have reached critical density, they are sprayed off the biofilm into a shallow bed of water, 2-3 inches deep, hugely reducing the amount of water that has to be moved in order to harvest algae.

Third, Green Plains is still supporting the project. Even in the “a penny really matters” world of corn ethanol, GPRE is well-known for a relentless focus on viability and profitability – and they have been adamant that the BioProcess Algae project is not a science project – but a focused exploration of value-add opportunities for their ethanol fleet – and that as soon as the project shows that it is not meeting GPRE’s tough success criteria, it will be shut down. Well, its not shut down.

And, as BioProcess Alage CEO Tim Burns notes, “you have to aim for the lowest cost production. That’s the winner.”

Meanwhile, the company is already taking orders. In June, BioProcess Algae and KD-Pharma Bexbach announced that they have entered a commercial supply agreement for the production of EPA-rich Omega-3 oils for use in concentrated EPA products for nutritional and/or pharmaceutical applications. Under the agreement, BioProcess Algae will supply microalgal oils which will be refined by KD-Pharma’s proprietary Supercritical Fluid Technology to produce highly-concentrated vegetable sourced EPA oils.

We would add a fourth notable feature to our short review from this summer. It’s hybrid design – a semi-closed system, using some elements of greenhouse design to protect and warm the algae, but using the some of the best, low-cost aspects of raceway-style, open pond design. That gives it a cost structure and a system that works in the temperate climates where staple grains generally grow — makes it possible to put the plant next to the CO2 source and share inrastructure.

Next steps for BioProcess Algae and Green Plains

Next steps? Following completion of the 5-acre demonstration, the company will proceed to full-commercial scale. And that can be substantial. A 100 million gallon corn ethanol plant produces enough CO2 to support 140,000 tons of algae production. Even at 60 tons per acre per year (as Cellana has generated at its 6-acre facility), that’s up to 2300 acres of algae production from a single site – almost 4 square miles. Possible? Depends entirely on site characteristics. But you get the idea.

What’s the real impact of the marriage of algae and corn ethanol?

Irrespective of technology, these are projects that monetize CO2. That’s their fundamental magic, liberating value from a waste stream. It’s an elegant expression of a foundational value proposition of advanced biofuels: “Less is more. Use what is there to the extent possible.”

The value proposition, in terms of capturing and liberating value, is substantial. As we do in Digestville, let’s look at the hard data.

In the United States, there is 14 billion gallons of corn ethanol capacity, which in turn represents the processing of around 4.8 billion bushels of corn (at 2.9 bushels per gallon), and generates 43.2 million tons of CO2 (at 18 pounds per bushel).

How much value? Australia has priced carbon at $A 23 per tonne; US advanced biotechnology developers like Algenol have modeled their CO2 acquisition at $30 per ton. Let’s use $25 as a mid-point. That’s $1.08 billion in value, and enough CO2 to produce 21 million tons of algae.

Now, it is highly tempting to do math and figure that, at a 30 percent lipid content, you could get around 1.6 billion gallons of renewable diesel by souring some added hydrogen, or the same volume of biodiesel. Or an awful lot of Omega-3s, and high value protein for animal feed. And the financial math in converting a $25 ton of CO2 into a $1000 ton of high-value feed is pretty compelling.

But not every process requires harvesting and extracting value from algae. The Shenandoah Project certainly does – but we may see more projects in the future like Joule Unlimited or Algenol that feature no-kill biofuels production – where the microorganisms are milked rather than harvested – and the yields may well go 50-150 percent higher, in terms of yields per pound of CO2.

The bottom line

There’s a long ways to go on the Shenandoah project – 5 acres is a long ways from full commercial scale. Lessons remain to be learned, risks remain. But it’s a long, long ways from bench scale, too. Much risk remediation has already occurred.

To date, Page County has been best-known nationally as the birthplace of the 4-H Clubs, where the long-time mottos are “to make the best, better” and to ” learn to do by doing”. Their pledge is one every bioenergy pioneer might note: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world!”

It may well be that, in the future, we’ll look back at projects like the Shenandoah ethanol plant and see in them a pretty good conversion of pledging into action, and at industrial scale.

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