Dow Chemical is planning a pilot project with algae biofuel start-up Algenol Biofuels to convert waste CO2 into ethanol. The biorefinery is to be located in Freeport, Texas, at Dow’s largest manufacturing site.
The project is contingent on Algenol’s receiving a Department of Energy grant for up to $25 million, or no more than half the cost of the $50 million facility. The rest of the capital would be provided by Algenol, which would also own and operate the plant. Dow would contribute 25 acres of land, the CO2 supply, and technical expertise.
Algenol has been a quiet contender in the nascent algae biofuel boom. By choice, the firm has not raised any venture capital, CEO Paul Woods says. Instead, Algenol’s activities, and its 100 employees, have been funded by the company’s founders, including Woods, who retired from a successful career in pharmaceuticals at age 38.
The company’s unusual algae also set it apart. Algenol claims its CO2-hungry, single-cell cyanobacteria produce sugar and contain enzymes that enable one-step conversion into ethanol, which the algae then excrete. The algae, the salt water they live in, and the ethanol are all packaged in bioreactors that let in sunlight. The algae are engineered to survive high alcohol levels.
In contrast, most biofuel firms, such as Solazyme, are interested in algal oils that can be made into biodiesel, gasoline, or other petroleum-like products. For those companies, getting the oil out of the individual algal cells has been a high hurdle (C&EN, Jan. 26, page 22).
Algenol’s one-step biology is what attracted Dow, says Steve Tuttle, bioscience business director with Dow’s ventures and business development arm. “It fits with Dow’s advancements in polymer films. We can create an environment in the bioreactor where the algae perform the best,” he says. And, Tuttle adds, Dow’s chemists and engineers will help design a process that can scale up for commercialization.
But fuel-quality ethanol must be distilled from the bioreactor condensate, which is a major focus for the pilot plant, Woods acknowledges. “We are not going to rely on old technology,” he says. “We will use advanced membrane technology and separations that are more energy efficient.”
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