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Ethanol Company Brews Green Energy

posted on January 29, 2010

The Agriculture Department estimates about 33 percent of this year's record 13.2 billion bushel corn crop will be used to produce ethanol.

The renewable fuel also yields the valuable byproduct of distiller's grains which contain about 80 percent of corn's original nutritional value for livestock.

Another, more dubious byproduct, CO2, typically is criticized these days as a pollutant. But an innovative operation is employing cutting-edge technology to turn what was once considered waste into the next generation of biofuel. Andrew Batt explains.

Ethanol Company Brews Green Energy

Transforming a kernel of corn into fuel-grade ethanol is nothing new for biofuel producers like Green Plains Renewable Energy. But the fourth largest ethanol company in North America also is brewing something different. Something their CEO calls the next generation of renewable fuel – the very green process of growing algae.

Todd Becker, CEO Green Plains Renewable Energy: "…now that we're seeing corn ethanol succeed and to start to really turn the corner we can really focus ourselves on next generations, second and third generations. This is an ethanol plant that has the potential to make a lot of high quality algae that can be used for many sources."

The promise of algae brought hundreds of citizens and public officials to the unveiling of what looks like a futuristic and experimental process.

Green Plains CEO Todd Becker was just one of many officials celebrating the biofuel company's latest venture into the slimy substance of algae. According to company technicians, the green matter is best brewed with warm water, exposure to natural light, and fueled by carbon dioxide.

With the facility's bioreactor located indoors, outdoor natural light is piped in via fiber optic cable and supplemented on dark winter days by a series of LED lights. Ethanol plants expel thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and waste heat during normal production. Green Plains is now diverting some Co2 and waste heat into the bioreactor to feed algae growth. Co2 capture could benefit the company's bottom-line as lawmakers weigh potential cap-and-trade legislation in Washington.

But offsetting Co2 emissions is just one potential opportunity algae could provide biofuel producers.

Todd Becker, CEO Green Plains Renewable Energy: "…we're going to capture the CO2 from the process and grow algae, and then we're going to use that algae as an added value into something else like an advanced bio-fuel. We'll take the oil out of the algae and we'll make bio-diesel. That's going to happen potentially down the road. We'll take the fiber out of the algae and we'll make an advanced or high quality animal feed. And then we'll take potentially just the bio-mass, burn it here, and create our own energy."

Becker's use of the word "potential" is not a mistake. Much of algae's energy and environmental promise has yet to be fulfilled. Nebraska-based Green Plains and CLARCOR Inc, a Tennessee-based water filtration company, joined forces to create BioProcessAlgae. The joint venture seeks to commercialize the growth and harvest of algal biomass. While the process is still in its infancy, the Shenandoah, Iowa photobioreactor is the first step towards mass production.

Tim Burns, Chief Executive BioProcessAlgae: "We joined forces to move the renewable energy sector forward. We've got a lot of work to do."

Energy initiatives in Rural America have hit a bumpy road in recent years. Skyrocketing food prices, record-setting input costs, and high-price corn tossed some ethanol plants into bankruptcy. Green Plains appears to have largely survived ethanol's perfect storm and even acquired a pair of VeraSun Energy plants following the biofuel company's collapse.

But the newest venture into algae production wasn't based entirely on a strong balance sheet. The State of Iowa's Power Fund funneled $2.1 million in grant money to spur project development. The taxpayer funded award demonstrates that even the nation's leader in corn production is ready to diversify its energy portfolio.

Andrew Batt, Market to Market: "Is Iowa the right place to build an algae ethanol production facility?"

Gov. Chet Culver, D-Iowa: "Absolutely. We really want to become the Silicon Prairie of the Midwest and do the research and development of second and third renewable technologies in Iowa, and this is just a great example of the fact that we can and we will do it here in Iowa."

While the BioProcessAlgae photobioreactor represents phase 1 of the pilot project, Green Plains' CEO sees room to expand.

Todd Becker, CEO Green Plains Renewable Energy: "The next project is going to move outside. These reactors are about 18 inches by about 10 feet. The next reactors that were building right now as we speak are three feet by twenty feet and we'll put a lot more of those outside, capture more of our CO2, grow more algae, and continue with the process."

The promise of industrial expansion could be a boon to small towns like Shenandoah, Iowa. Current President of the Shenandoah Chamber of Commerce, Gregg Connell, originally pushed for algae production at the nearby plant. The town's former mayor sees his community and rural America at the foundation of an energy renaissance.

Gregg Connell, President, Shenandoah Chamber of Commerce: "I think that this project, bio-fuels, is the equivalent of what Kitty Hawk was to flight and I think that four, five, six, ten generations from now people will look back and say my gosh, you know, what a primitive way to develop bio-fuels, but it all has to start somewhere and we think it's going to start in Shenandoah, Iowa."

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: agriculture alternative energy biofuels corn crops Energy/Environment ethanol Iowa renewable fuels Rural Economic Summit Shenandoah