How One Company is Using Algae to Offset Carbon

On a sprawling facility in Southwestern Iowa, it’s business as usual as row upon row of corn gets processed into ethanol. But there’s something different going on, and even those at the highest ranks of agriculture think this could be, if not the ultimate answer, perhaps a significant piece of it.

In its PR battle, ethanol has a carbon problem. It’s widely debated how much CO2 is emitted during the growing and refining of ethanol. But this much is certain: The debate continues, and it’s been a challenge for the industry.

To find a solution, Tim Burns took a different look at the problem. Rather than seeing the carbon that is emitted from an ethanol plant as waste, he sees it as a commodity. That’s because he’s in the algae business, and algae love to feast on carbon. So on this particular farm in Shenendoah, Iowa, every day is Thanksgiving.

Burns leads BioProcess Algae, which has teamed with Green Plains Renewable Energy, for the world’s first co-located algae-ethanol plant. The carbon emitted during the production process is pumped into bioreactors where the algae will grow. For every unit of algal biomass produced, two units of CO2 are absorbed into the growth process. The dried algae is then used to supply, not a car via biofuel, but livestock via feed.

Burns is interested in making his algae-based business profitable, and right now that’s through creating feed. Eventually, as profits clear room for a large-scale operation, the hope is that using algae to create biofuels will then become feasible. In the meantime, it’s assisting ethanol with its carbon emission problem. It’s all part of the link between food, feed and fuel.

“What you’re really doing is you’re valuing carbon,” said Burns. “Everybody who has a fermentation process and an emission of a CO2, that’s a wasted resource. If you can make a valuable product out of it, everybody who has that emission will look at that emission as an opportunity and not a headache.”

Right now, the operation has moved into its second phase. And it was such a big deal that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was there to give the keynote at the dedication this spring. The best line of the day came from Vilsack: “This is a remarkable project … I don’t understand it totally, but it’s really neat to look at.”

What he was seeing was a series of vertical commercial-sized reactors drawing from the ethanol plant’s carbon emissions. They’ve been running for about a year now, and they’ve produced a few tons of ash-free dried wholesale algae. The company is currently in discussions for an offtake agreement on the feedstock. Once that is in place, they hope to begin the process of building up the algae production to manufacturing scale.

“Once we get these acres down and we have a profitable farm on our hands, then everything changes,” said Burns. “You have to get these first farms down. That’s the Valley of Death every industry has to cross.”

To get there, Burns says he is meeting with food companies, oil executives and utilities. He said they see the potential in algae, not only as a biofuel, but as a way to offset carbon. Burns himself sees a day when an algae system may exist alongside coal-fired and natural gas plants as a way to offset emissions. And his company is actively looking to build partnerships with the hundreds of ethanol producing plants across the country.

“They key is a pathway to profitability,” said Burns. “[Across the industry,] a lot of initial money was put down for a direct biofuel replacement. We see this is a co-product business. When there are a number of farms down, at that point you’ll have enough acreage to get into the fuels market.”

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