Is Algae the Future of Fuel?

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Remember when fuel was $1.27 per gallon? I believe I was in high school last time gas was that cheap. Speaking of high school, let us now pretend we’re back in biology class. I promise to keep it interesting and there will not be a quiz at the end. Ok, let us first think about all those CO2 emissions from power generation plants, industrial plants, etc. Currently most of those emissions are being emitted directly into our outdoor environment. Now what if there was a way to capture those emissions, use photosynthesis and turn the byproduct into usable fuels? Still sound too good to be true? Well, one such company has done just that, U.S.-based Algenol.

Using patented technology and proprietary algae, sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater at production levels of 8,000 total gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year, the company can produce ethanol, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel for around $1.27 per gallon each. Algenol’s technology uses a unique two-step process that first produces ethanol directly from the algae, and then converts the spent algae biomass to biodiesel, gasoline and jet fuel. It is the only renewable fuel production process that can convert more than 85% of its CO2 feedstock into four commonly used fuels.Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 7.43.27 AM


While some reports indicate that some forms of ethanol are worse than gasoline, that’s not the case for all biofuels. Algenol believes that their algae biofuel production provides a viable solution to the climate crisis.

To create this fuel, the CO2 produced by other industrial processes is captured and used as feedstock for the algae in an outdoor reactor system, resulting in ethanol through photosynthesis. In the case of a power plant using natural gas to produce electricity, the flue gas containing CO2 can be blown directly into the algae culture without expensive carbon capture technology and this produces the greatest carbon reductions at the lowest price. Additional environmental benefits of this technology include;

  • The utilization of salt water for the algae and ultimate production of fresh water
  • Reduced need for land to produce the product
  • No need for farmland or food feedstocks
  • Nominal carbon footprint (consuming and recycling CO2).
  • Enhanced algae are not plant pests, and are non-toxic and non-invasive in the environment

“I like to think of our company as the most successful completely unknown company,” says Algenol CEO Paul Woods. Full scale commercialization for algae biofuel is Algenol’s next frontier. The company recently expanded its current headquarters in Ft. Myers, Florida, and is looking to invest approximately $50 million in a manufacturing plant for the plastics used in its modular photobioreactor bags. In addition, Algenol is in the planning stages for a commercial facility scheduled to begin building in 2015.

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One of the biggest challenges the innovative company faces is none other than the Environmental Protection Agency. Yep, you read that right, the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Woods, the EPA regulates his company in at least a dozen different ways. “Ironically, the greatest threat to our business is the bureaucracy of the EPA.”


Case in point, this year the EPA issued a program announcement titled ‘Improving the Petition Process for New Renewable Fuel Pathways’. In the announcement the EPA states that ‘We have determined that improvements should be made to the petition process to enable more timely and efficient decision-making. In order to evaluate and implement these improvements EPA is taking a period of time to update the current system to provide greater efficiency and improved public service.’ It goes on to say that the agency expects this process to take approximately six months and that they recommend that parties considering new petitions pursuant to §80.1416 delay their submissions until the new guidance is provided.

In the EPA’s newly announced carbon emissions reduction plans (calling for a 30% reduction by 2030) for all power plants, CO2 recycling or CO2 reuse does not even appear as an approved mitigation strategy. Since Algenol purchases the CO2 from the power company, Algenol’s process of CO2 reuse is the most cost effective for both power companies and customers – when compared to costly carbon capture and underground storage.

Woods believes that this delay and non-inclusive policies has the potential to put his and other similar cutting edge companies out of business altogether. Algenol is currently producing fuels on site but cannot sell them in the market because of EPA red tape. “The EPA has no real recognized path towards what we are trying to accomplish,” added Woods. Only time will tell if algae radically changes the world of fuel production. The clock is ticking, and the sun is shining.

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Chase Ezell

Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for Earth911.com.

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