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Algenol trains algae to turn carbon into ethanol
The company has signed an $850 million deal with a Mexican company BioFields to grow algae, one of the planet's first life forms, that has been trained to convert water, sunlight, and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into motor fuel.
Several algae companies are trying to enter the biofuels business by drying and pressing the organisms to make vegetable oil that can be processed into biodiesel.
Woods said Algenol will use a process he invented in the 1980s to coax individual algal cells to secrete ethanol. That way, the fuel can be taken directly from the vats where the algae is grown while the organism lives on, using far less energy than drying and pressing the organisms for their oil.
Algenol plans to make 100 million gallons of ethanol, about the average annual capacity of one traditional U.S. distillery, in Mexico's Sonoran Desert by the end of the 2009. By the end of 2012, it plans to increase that to 1 billion gallons -- more than 10 percent of current ethanol capacity in the United States, the world's top ethanol producer.
Algenol operates the world's largest algae library in Baltimore, Maryland to study the organism that can grow in salt or fresh water, and expanding the technique to locations beyond Mexico. The company is targeting to build algae-to-ethanol farms on coasts in the United States.
BioFields has signed an agreement to sell the fuel to the Mexican government, probably through the state oil monopoly Pemex.
Another advantage of ethanol from algae, NRDC's Steelman said, is its sheer productivity compared to agricultural crops. Algenol estimates it can make 6,000 gallons of ethanol from an acre of land.
At that rate, Steelman said, if all U.S. ethanol was made from algae it would only use 3 percent of the land that corn needs to make the fuel. "It's a huge advantage," he said.