Iowa Public Television


Algae Biomass Takes Commercial Step

posted on April 21, 2011

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Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. Builders broke ground on more new homes last month, giving the beleaguered housing sector a much-needed shot in the arm.

According to the National Association of Realtors, sales of existing single-family homes increased 3.7 percent month-over-month in March.

New housing starts also improved last month, gaining more than 7 percent from February.

And after plummeting to a 50-year low in February, applications for building permits -- an indicator of future construction -- rose more than 11 percent last month.

Meanwhile, the Conference Board says its index of leading indicators rose 0.4 percent in March, in its ninth consecutive monthly gain. But the private research group cautions that rising energy prices could slow the pace of recovery.

The American Automobile Association reports motorists paid a national average price of $3.84 per gallon of unleaded gasoline this week. ...up 30 cents from March and nearly $1 from a year ago.

Proponents of renewable fuels claim prices at the pump would be even higher were it not for ethanol.

According to the Renewable Fuels Association, The 13 billion gallons of home-grown ethanol produced in 2010 displaced 445 million barrels of foreign oil. And with crude trading north of $112 per barrel, the push is on to make ethanol even more cost-effective. Andrew Batt reports on an innovative operation in Iowa that's giving a whole new meaning to "green energy."

On the fertile soil of southwest Iowa, a Midwestern ethanol company has harnessed what they call "the next generation of renewable fuel." These towering vials of churning green biomass are known as photobioreactors.

The scientific and potential business growth of has attracted the attention of the global energy community AND the U.S. government. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has toured numerous renewable energy projects across the country, but he says he's never witnessed an initiative quite like this algal biomass operation in Southwest Iowa.

Green Plains Renewable Energy lured Vilsack to Shenandoah, Iowa for the grand opening of its commercial-scale bioreactors…an opportunity embraced by the Ag Department chief.

Despite the jubilation of attendees at the Green Plains grand opening, some critics of biofuels are not convinced. Some scientists have labeled corn-based ethanol as "inefficient" and next generation biofuels like as "unattainable scientific concepts." The domestic renewable fuels sector strongly disagrees.

When, Green Plains first unveiled their patented algal biofuel processes in 2009 their reactors were smaller, but the production process was the same. Waste heat, waste water and CO2 from the conventional ethanol plant are diverted and pumped into photobioreactors. The original reactors installed in 2009 relied on LED lighting which was supplemented with natural light piped in via fiber optic cable.

Eighteen months later, the idea has come full circle, a new structure now houses the company's largest bioreactors which are directly exposed to full sunlight.

But everything isn't "blue-sky and sunshine" for Green Plains and some question whether the company's patented, grower harvester technology has outpaced the potential market for biomass.

Becker says production has not only made Green Plains a carbon-neutral ethanol plant, it's also enabled the company to create a "negative carbon footprint" for the Shenandoah, Iowa facility.

The company will break ground in the coming days on an outdoor farm expected to further commercialize the one-of-a-kind multi-million dollar project.


Tags: agriculture algae alternative energy biofuels biomass business Energy/Environment ethanol news renewable fuels