Oil Prices Drop, Gas Prices Rise

It’s Friday and that means its time to fill the gas tank. Just in time for weekend fun, it always seems like gas prices go up. Here in California, prices are hovering near the $4.40 per gallon mark. But this week, oil prices dropped 15 percent from a two-year high of $114.83 on Monday and today prices closed at $97.18. Economists are predicting gas prices at the pump will fall and we’ll see a summer national average of $3.50, although last month the EIA predicted they would be closer to $3.79. But don’t hold your breath – prices won’t drop this weekend.

I’ve held this interview with Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis because I was waiting for prices to rise even higher (which they have). When we had this discussion, we were attending the event where BioProcess Algae commissioned its Grower Harvester bioreactors, the second phase in their commercialization strategy. The site is co-located with a first generation corn ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa owned and operated by Green Plains Renewable Energy. This was the perfect backdrop to have the discussion about the role of biofuels in helping to lower prices at the pump.

Buis explained that for the past 40 years, our country has been addicted to foreign oil and the costs to our country have been astronomical. Every recession since World World II has been proceeded by high gas prices. As oil prices rise, it takes time for the increased price to be reflected at the pump. Yet we have a domestic solution available now – ethanol. “I don’t know how many times we have to have these wake-up calls, let’s move forward. We know we can do it. We’re sitting here at a plant today that’s living proof that we can create our own energy here in this country.”

Listen to my interview with Tom Buis here: Ethanol, Right Here, Right Now

Today, Buis said ethanol today is saving consumers at the low end 17 cents per gallon up to 50 cents per gallon on the high end. “If we shut off ethanol today, it would have a far greater impact than the turmoil in the Middle East or North Africa because we’re a bigger source,” said Buis. “Most people don’t understand that if the American ethanol industry were a country, we would be the second largest provider to the United States of transportation fuel. Second only to Canada. That would have a huge impact.”

One last fact. We spend $1 billion dollars a day to import foreign oil. This is more than $1,000 per year for every man, woman and child in this country. That means you.

Mull this over the next time you fill up.

BIO World Congress Preview

The World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, hosted by BIO, is set to begin on Sunday, May 8, 2011 in Toronto. A record crowd is expected and the exhibitor hall is sold out. I’ll be on site to bring you breaking news and information about the latest biotechnology trends as they relate to biofuels and biochemicals. To get a preview of the conference, I spoke with Brent Erickson, executive vice president with BIO.

Erickson said that this conference is really dynamic on multiple levels. There are a series of plenary sessions as well as breakout sessions and workshops covering the gamut from advanced biofuels technology to algae and feedstock crops, as well as aviation fuels, renewable chemical platforms, and bi-based materials. Several events of special interest include the announcement of the George Washington Carver award and Greenfield Ethanol will be making an announcement about its cellulosic technology.

Listen to or download my interview with BIO’s Brent Erickson: BIO World Congress Preview

Two weeks ago, BIO released a white paper on policy and investments needed for the biotech industry. Erickson said these issues would be key during the World Congress. Government policy in the U.S. as well as Canada and globally will be entwined through many sessions. In addition, there will be a focus on the flow of venture capital and investment money into this space as Erickson said for many companies this is an important issue. He also said it is very heartening in this investment climate to see IPOs take place. The next IPO to take place is Solazyme.

I asked Erickson what companies or technologies he think will breakthrough over the next 6-18 months and he said what we’ll see are platforms breakthrough. He believes the biobutanol platform will take off as well as the succinic acid platform.

Be sure to follow conference conference right here beginning on Monday.

Biomass Industry Execs Discuss Future

biomass conferenceAll energy of the bio variety – biomass, biogas, biodiesel and biofuels – were represented at the 4th International Biomass Conference and Expo on Monday during a panel featuring executives of seven different industry organizations.

Moderator Tom Bryan, Vice President of BBI International, asked the panel was what the top priorities for their organizations are this year.

“Just getting parity for algae,” said Algal Biomass Organization Executive Director Mary Rosenthal. She says they are also working on educating lawmakers about algae and keeping the funding they currently have for development from departments of energy, agriculture and defense.

Charlie Niebling with the Biomass Thermal Energy Council said they would like to see thermal incorporated into a true federal Clean Energy Standard. “We still face real challenges in just making sure people understand the role that thermal plays in addressing energy challenges in our country,” he said.

Biomass Power Association CEO Robert Cleaves says they support the development of a federal Clean Energy Standard as well and they want to retain the USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). “BCAP for existing facilities may be the only game in town as a bridge to somewhere,” he said.

Inclusion and parity are also important for biogas, as well as working on a fundamental change in waste management. “Discontinuing policies that simply take all this organic matter, put it in a hole in the ground and create environmental issues. Instead we need to create policies to divert that to higher, better and multiple uses.” said Norma McDonald of the American Biogas Council.

For members of the Renewable Fuels Association, president Bob Dinneen says what is most important is education and certainty. “We’re looking at a situation where our tax incentive expires the end of this year,” Dinneen said. “What we’re trying to do is get to some reform of the existing incentive that reflects the fact that the industry has indeed grown, that will allow the industry to continue to grow and evolve, but do so in response to fiscal realities in Washington DC now.”

“The biodiesel industry is an example of what can happen when you have total policy failures in Washington DC,” said Joe Jobe with the National Biodiesel Board, referring to the non-renewal of the biodiesel tax for a year that caused many plants to shut down. Jobe says the industry is going strong again and plants are re-opening but they would like to see the tax credit extended again at the end of this year. “We just need a little more time to get a little more mature.”

Finally, Advanced Biofuels Association president Michael McAdams stressed the importance of keeping the Renewable Fuels Standard in place. “The RFS2 is the single most important public policy in the United States for first, second and third generations biofuels,” he said.

Listen the panel talk about priorities here: Biomass Conference Panel

Heliae – Measuring Algae by the Barrel

Sun and algae go together like peanut butter and jelly. Just ask Karl Seitz, Co-Founder of Heliae. I sat down with Seitz during the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in DC to learn a little more about his company and their technology. The first unique attribute of the company is their name. Heli is Greek for the sun and the ae was added for algae so their name is the combination of the sun and algae.

Heliae was formed about four years ago when the team met two professors at Arizona State University (ASU) who told them about a new process by which they could take algae and turn it into jet fuel. The more they heard and understood about the technology, the more hooked they became.

“We looked in to it more and what was of particular interest to us was that their particular strains of algae grew very rapidly, doubled its weight every day, it was high in oil content, greater than 30 percent, and it had the right oil components,” said Seitz. That means it has a component of carbon that goes from C8 to C16 and that happens to be roughly the same carbon string that kerosene has. Kerosene is the main component of aviation fuel.”

Another pro of algae, said Seitz, is that not only can you produce fuel, but also food.

Listen to my full interview with Karl Seitz: Heliae - Measuring Algae by the Barrel

I asked Seitz about their technology and how they were going to go from pilot to commercial scale. “We’re going to start off with our proprietary strains of algae and improve upon them. We do not use a GMO strain. We use a strain that has been chemically altered and provides us with higher oil content and a faster growth rate,” said Seitz. “We also combine that with our closed photobioreactor and then we use our proprietary and patented extraction formulas and techniques to get the fuel out as well as the protein and carbohydrates.”

Seitz said the other issue they are focusing on is developing algae strains that are suited for different parts of the country or different regions around the world.

There are still questions about whether or not algal fuels and products can be competitive with petroleum based fuels and products. Seitz said their initial goal was to produce one barrel per day per acre and at that rate they think they can be competitive. And while many other companies are measuring success by the liter or the gallon, Heliae is measuring success by the barrel. The reason is that the world needs billions of barrels of renewable fuels to replace just aviation fuels. So in the future, Heliae hopes to play a major role in helping the world achieve that goal.

Click here to view the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference flickr photo album.

Creating a Downstream Market for Algae Products

“When we embarked on this project three years ago, we thought by the time we reached commercial scale, like we have today, there would be plenty of demand for algae biomass to produce these products,” said Todd Becker, CEO of Green Plains Renewable Energy (GPRE) during the dedication of BioProcess Algae’s Grower Harvester bioreactors. This dedication signaled the last stage to commercialization for algae fuels and by-products as part of the partnership between the two companies that was forged several years ago.

“All we wanted to do was become the farmer of this product and grow and harvest algae. What we have discovered is that we’ve moved faster than the downstream markets have developed,” said Becker.

The event was held in Shenandoah, Iowa, the home of the only co-located first and advanced biofuels plant and also the former headquarters of GPRE before growing and moving to Omaha. Today, GPRE is publicly traded, is the fourth largest producer of ethanol in the U.S and owns and operates nine ethanol plants in six states. Directly employing nearly 600 people, the company expects revenues for 2011 to reach the $3 billion mark.

But maybe why GPRE is so excited about this project, is that they are demonstrating to the world that carbon has value. “What this represents is a true intersection between first generation technologies and advanced technology. What we are showing today to the world is not only does carbon have value, but carbon and other by-products from this ethanol plant, like warm water and heat, can create a product that will give Americans food, feed and fuel,” said Becker.

GPRE and BioProcess Algae have discovered as they reach commercial stage, that they will have to help create the markets for algae fuels and by-products. This month, they are beginning feed trails with Iowa State University that they hope will show the value of a high protein animal product for animal feed. In addition, they are looking to produce products for the food markets including antioxidants, pigments, Omega-3s, and protein. In the energy markets, they are looking at producing biodiesel, a biocrude product as well as producing ethanol from the algae.

So what is the vision of the project? Becker concluded, “It’s still very early days of the technology, but if successful, our vision is to create a process that captures carbon dioxide from every ethanol plant in the United States, use that input to grow and harvest algae, reduce the production plant’s carbon footprint from neutral to negative, and takes the output from the reactors, the algae, and produces next generation fuels, ethanol and energy.”

Click here to view the Flickr photo album from the BioProcess Algae/GPRE Grower Harvester event.

Algaepalooza to Look for Green Source for Biodiesel

Scientists in the St. Louis, Missouri area are hoping to get some help from local residents in finding the ideal algae to turn into biodiesel.

During the upcoming 2nd annual Algaepalooza, held Saturday, May 7, 2011 from 10am to 4pm in the Life Science Lab at the Saint Louis Science Center, people will be able to pick up algae-collecting kits as part of the Backyard Biofuels citizen science research project:

Last year, 1,000 families and individuals were given collection kits, and approximately 170 samples were cultured in the Life Science Lab to isolate individual algae species that produce oil. More than 100 of those isolated strains were sent to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center, where they were tested for how much oil could be made and used for biofuel production. Those that showed promise are undergoing additional tests.

“Ten samples from last year’s algae gave high readings of oil production. Such encouraging results wouldn’t be possible without the help of citizen scientists.” said Matthew Stevens, senior lab technician at the Danforth Plant Science Center who conducts the research for the Backyard Biofuels program. “This year we have a goal to identify an algae species that boast better oil productivity than last year.”

And since folks will have the option of mailing in their collection kits, organizers expect more samples this year.

Algaepalooza gives visitors the chance to talk with the research scientists behind the project and learn why algae have the potential to be a sustainable source of fuel used to power cars, trucks and jet airplanes. More information is available at backyardbiofuels.org.

PA Awards $1.3M Grant for Coal-Biomass-to-Liquids Plant

The state of Pennsylvania has awarded a $1.3 million grant to Accelergy Corporation to enable construction on their integrated coal-biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) facility to move forward. The CBTL plant is located at Intertek PARC, located at the U-PARC facility in Pittsburgh. Prior to this award, the company received a $175,000 grant for a feasibility study that included recommended site locations. Once completed, the pilot plant will prove out Accelergy’s coal to liquids technology and provide the base needed to move to commercial scale technologies.

“This grant is a strong endorsement of Accelergy and its partners’ technology, and shows the commitment of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the development of advanced technologies that leverage the state’s abundant natural resources and will bring jobs to the state,” said Tim Vail, CEO of Accelergy. “We are laying the foundation for the commercialization of the domestically sourced fuels that will power U.S. fleets and help the United States achieve its energy security goals.”

During the pilot phase of the project, Accelergy will produce and test various types of non-petroleum fuel including gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. In addition, CO2 will be utilized by algae – another source of liquid fuels. The company is also looking into the feasibility of turning the algae into a bio-fertilizer. Energy Strategy Environment LLC (ESE), a systems integration provider, will oversee the marriage of the technologies and business partners for the algae based carbon capture and recycle components of the project. Accelergy has agreements in place with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering (TARDEC) Center to test and certify the resulting fuels for various applications.

“Recycling industrial CO2 emission into valuable carbon feedstocks for production of additional liquid fuels creates a sustainable pathway for CBTL,” said ESE founder Mark Allen, P.E. “Algal biomass from the project will be adapted for use as a natural bio-fertilizer with the potential to reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and to sequester carbon in agricultural soils and reclaimed mine site soils, further benefitting the environment.”

New Bioplastics Logo Unveiled

Biomass is not just for energy. Crops like potatoes, corn, wheat, tapioca, sugar, and algae can also be used to produce plastics, or “bioplastics”, a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Bioplastics are biodegradable and compostable and for those consumers looking to make a “greener” choice, Cereplast has unveiled a new bioplastics logo. The winner was announced on Earth Day Eve as part of Cereplast’s “Make Your Mark” competition. Laura Howard, a graphic design student at the University of Louisville, Kentucky created the logo and was awarded $25,000 for her design that will be easily identifiable on products.

“We are excited to congratulate Laura Howard for designing a symbol that has the potential to become a revolutionary logo representing the next generation of plastics – plastics that protect and preserve our environment and are made from renewable resources,” said Frederic Scheer, Chairman and CEO of Cereplast. “The new bioplastic symbol will be used in a similar fashion to the recycling symbol as it will be stamped on products, and it will serve as an identifying mark of bioplastic material.”

Scheer continued, “Petroleum-based plastics can have a devastating impact on our environment. Approximately 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year.  At these quantities, we could wrap the entire planet several times over. Bioplastics offer a more respectful option for our environment, and we believe that this new symbol will help provide consumers with the tools they need to make more environmentally intelligent purchasing decisions.”

The “Make Your Mark” campaign was designed after the 1970 contest that produced the now unmistakable “recycle” logo. The bioplastics logo design campaign received over 1,500 design entries and 2.8 million public votes. The top 200 designs were then judged a panel that included Dr. Gary Anderson, creator of the recycling symbol, Dr. Michael Thielen, Publisher of bioplastics MAGAZINE, and Karim Rashid, world-class industrial designer.

“Cereplast’s bioplastic symbol could likely gain traction much faster than the recycling symbol I designed, as communication in today’s digital landscape runs at lightning speed compared to forty years ago,” said Dr. Gary Anderson, creator of the recycling symbol and “Make Your Mark” judge. “I am honored to be a part of this historic competition that has produced a symbol that will represent the environmental benefits of bioplastics.”

How to Decrease Algae Culture “Crashes”

Arizona State University through a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is studying the factors involved in algal crop failure known as culture “crashes.” Grazing zooplankton are considered predators to algae and can cause loss of productivity. According to scientist Qiang Hu and his research team, except for a few algal strains that can tolerate extreme growing environments, the hazard of predator contamination is so great that sustainable cultivation of many algal crops, in particular, oil-producing algal strains on a large-scale, has not been possible.

Hu is the co-director of the Arizona Center for Algal Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) / Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB). He says that the cost of crop failures could be in the multi-million dollar range if zooplankton have their way. Zooplankton are microscopic animals that are often identified as amoebas, protozoans, ciliates and rotifers. All are predators on microscopic algae, which represent the base of the aquatic food chain.

“Without a detailed understanding of the factors influencing the occurrence, population dynamics, impact and control of zooplankton, it could potentially prevent algae from being a practical source of oil crops for production of bioenergy and bioproducts,” says Hu.

The team is just getting started in its study and they plan to survey zooplankton contamination in commercial algal production systems, as well as in their own algae testbed facilities located at ASU Polytechnic campus. Simultaneously, the team will determine living and non-living influencers on zooplankton, with the goal of developing an empirical model for assessment and prediction of potential impact of zooplankton contamination on overall algal culture stability and biomass production potential.

The team will use state-of-the-art bio-imaging and DNA fingerprinting techniques to help them develop a rapid, sensitive monitoring and an early warning system. At the same time, they will evaluate several innovative control measures, and ultimately develop a Best Management Practices Plan (BMPP) for prevention and treatment.

“The comprehensive BMPP will be the key to achieve sustainable production of algal feedstock, and thus enable successful commercialization of algae-based biofuels and bioproducts,” explains Hu.

“Results from the research plan to be shared widely with the biotechnology community and the algal biofuels industry, through publications and conference presentations, as well as workshops and training courses provided by LARB and AzCATI.

DF Cast: Researchers, Advocates Clash on Algae Biodiesel Feasibility

Some researchers say that, at current production levels, algae biodiesel is not a commercially viable product. But some algae advocates believe researchers might have some ulterior motives for coming to that conclusion.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Peter Pfromm, a professor in Kansas State University’s department of chemical engineering, says that while they found that it’s possible to produce enough biodiesel to make it a net energy gain over the amount of energy that goes into the green fuel’s production, it won’t make money. In fact, he says the algae would have to produce perhaps three times the amount of oil it currently does in order for algae-for-biodiesel production to be economically feasible, and it would take a pond 11 square kilometers big just to grow enough algae for the green fuel to replace just .1 percent of this nation’s diesel use. Pfromm says the real work needs to go into boosting the level of oil output from the algae.

But But Barry Cohen, the executive director of the advocacy group, the National Algae Association, says Pfromm is not looking at real-world conditions, and Cohen says Pfromm’s assumption that the algae would be grown in open ponds is an old, out-dated technology, and most algae growers are using vertical photo bioreactors and fermenters. He also contends that algae researchers have a financial reason for not seeing algae commercialized as the U.S. Department of Energy is only funding research, not production, done on algae-biodiesel. He says that if researchers ever found a way to make algae-biodiesel commercially viable, that federal money for the research would dry up.

Pfromm says they received no outside money, especially no DOE money, for this project.

Hear more of what both men had to say here: Domestic Fuel Cast

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.: