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Algae-produced gas a possible alternative to fossil fuels

Bob Geiger
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — That slippery green scum beneath the family cabin dock could soon help fuel your car.

That, at least, is the goal of federal, state and local government officials, as well as energy experts who attended a recent workshop here.

According to the Midwest Algae Commercialization Workshop, the federal government and various private companies have spent decades learning how to extract fuel-ready hydrocarbons from the simple plants, as an alternative to extracting it from the ground.

“Funding is following algae right now,” said Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Algal Biomass Organization, referring to interest from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense and Energy. “There’s a potential viability.”

The good news: Algae is easily grown, on everything from manure to pond surfaces, and that growth can easily be sped up with specially lighted tanks and other basic equipment. But there’s a problem: It takes $1,000 to produce a barrel of algae-based oil — about 14 times the recent price of crude. That’s between $20 and $25 per gallon of gas — assuming it’s made entirely from algae oil – about 10 times the price of regular gasoline.

“In the case of algae, people always ask, ‘Where is the market?’” said Tom Erickson, associate director for research at Grand Forks, N.D.-based Energy and Environmental Research Center.

In July, EERC was awarded a contract by San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. to help produce jet fuel from algae as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project.

Roger Ruan, professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, said the federal government has a $35 million budget for algae fuel research, and noted that the federal stimulus package contains an additional $50 million for an algae-to-biofuels project. But cost remains the big stumbling block.

Luca Zullo, owner of Verde Nero LLC, told those attending the algae workshop that “We cannot sell this industry today.

“We do not want to be like cellulosic ethanol,” Zullo said, referring to the boom and bust of corn ethanol industry, which overbuilt capacity before record-high corn prices plummeted after mid-2008, making ethanol prices less attractive as an alternative to oil.

Despite the costs, San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, which has attracted more than $100 million in money from such investors as Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, is pushing ahead with efforts to find a way of creating algae fuel without breaking the bank.

But John Sheehan, program director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, said that current low oil prices pose “an impossible bogey” to widespread algae production.

“We need to focus on immediate results,” Sheehan said. “In the near term, the idea of combining this product with another business could make (algae) a fuel co-product,” like ethanol.

Sheehan, a veteran of nearly 20 years with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, worked on system models for strategy and policy related to biodiesel and ethanol.

He cited oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil’s work on a Solix biofuel and carbon mitigation technology, which produces thick algae paste in a huge tank that is designed to produce “biocrude,” or algae oil.

Cautioned Sheehan: “Everything’s a projection right now.”

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