“Ethanol is almost infinitely mobile in a cell, and essentially leaks out into the bioreactor after synthesis,” Coleman says. “Through some various condensation steps we collect it.” Other companies are working on ways to make biofuels from photosynthetic algae, including Synthetic Genomics, based in La Jolla, CA, which just signed an R&D agreement with ExxonMobil valued at up to $600 million. But efforts there have focused on oil extraction, not ethanol.
Dow is particularly interested in Algenol’s process because ethanol replaces fossil fuels in the production of ethylene, which is a basic chemical feedstock for making many types of plastics. Oils from algae are less useful, says Steve Tuttle, business director of biosciences at Dow. “Biodiesel doesn’t necessarily fit in with what we’d want to use as a downstream product,” he says.
Tuttle says that Dow, on top of leasing land and supplying a source of industrial carbon dioxide, will also assist with process engineering and help develop advanced plastic films for covering the bioreactors. Other partners in the project include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Algenol has applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that would help fund the demonstration project.
Woods is convinced that the process can be scaled up, and at a favorable cost of production. “It’s our expectation to produce ethanol for $1.25 a gallon,” he says, adding that the resulting ethanol gives back 5.5 times more energy than what it takes to produce it, making the renewable fuel competitive with cellulosic ethanol production. Woods notes that Algenol’s approach offers another bonus: “Every gallon of ethanol made creates one gallon of fresh water out of salt water.”
Algenol has also partnered with Mexico’s Sonora Fields, a subsidiary of Biofields, which is planning an $850 million project that aims to produce one billion gallons of ethanol annually.