You might have heard about ethanol but what about Algenol? This Maryland company wants to turn algae cells into ethanol, claiming the innovative process creates more ethanol than corn per acre. But can this new biofuel idea live up to the hype?
Digital Journal — Creating ethanol from algae sounds miraculous but it’s just a way to harness molecular biology: certain algae strains are enhanced, giving them the ability to make sugar and then ferment the sugar to ethanol. As Algenol’s website
explains: "The algae are metabolically enhanced to produce ethanol while being resistant to high temperature, high salinity, and high ethanol levels, which were previous barriers to ramping to commercial scale volumes."
article says the process is unique because of its cultivation niche:
The algae is grown in tubes, plastic bags, or open ponds and then harvested and pressed for its oil. Some companies propose taking the leftover biomass and burning it or using it as animal feed.
In a bold claim, Algenol says it can produce 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year, compared to corn’s rate of 370 gallons per acre per year. By the end of 2008, the company predicts it will exceed its target of 10,000 gallons per acre per year.
The controversy over biofuels is currently centred on how its production is driving up food prices, but Algenol has a quick reply to those critics: “[our] technology will not drive up the price of corn, sugar, and other field crops used for ethanol and other biofuels production nor will it drive up the prices of the downstream products like beef, poultry and other foods reliant on corn or sugar, or their products such as sweeteners.”
This take on biofuel is boosting Algenol’s profile. Business partner BioFields has agreed to license its technology, forking over $100 million and committing $850 million to build a saltwater algae farm in the Sonoran Desert in northwest Mexico. The site will pump carbon dioxide from a nearby power station into the algae bioreactors.
Algenol is not the first and only company to turn pond scum into car fuel. There’s Petro Sun
, GreenFuel Technologies
and many more. Competition should spur Algeonol and BioField to fine-tune their processes in order to win market leadership, even if that pole position may take awhile to earn.
Any new industrial or agribusiness technology is studded with roadblocks and challenges. That’s a no-brainer. But if algae-based biofuels can overcome any hurdles in its way, the days of truly beneficial and cost-effective alternative fuels could be a real possibility.