Sector Portrait: Energy
Some Florida businesses are squeezing a trickle of fuel from algae, claiming they can help power the world. But right now, a few expensive drops in the bucket are all they have to show.
On 1,000 acres on the northwest shores of Lake Apopka, Orlando businessman Nick VandenBrekel touts a new crop for Florida that he says can help boost the state's economy as it provides another source of alternative energy.
His company, Agrisys, has raised more than $25 million from investors and plans to break ground this quarter on ponds and a small refinery where VandenBrekel says Agrisys will be able to grow algae, process it into an oil, and refine the oil into jet fuel, diesel or gasoline.
Agrisys founder Nick VandenBrekel plans a facility near Lake Apopka where the company intends to grow algae and refine it into fuel and omega-3 "fish oil." [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Scaled up, VandenBrekel envisions a host of 1,000-to-20,000-acre farms across the Southeast where algal fuel is grown, processed and used locally, from community gas stations to diesel fleets such as school buses. Success, he says, would create no less than a "rebirth of American agriculture."
Like Agrisys, a troop of other Florida companies — including PetroAlgae of Melbourne; Algenol of Bonita Springs; AquaFiber of Orlando; and Algae Aviation Fuel of Sarasota — sees the same promise in algae as a source of biofuel. Algae grows faster than any other potential crop, reaching maturity in less than 24 hours. As it grows, it devours CO2, generating oxygen as a byproduct. Most important for its potential as fuel, algae produce lipids, which store energy as fat.
Turning that fat into fuel requires identifying a species with high lipid content, growing it quickly, harvesting it and then extracting oil from the microscopic cells and refining it.
VanderBrekel displays fuel derived from algae.
The Florida firms all boast unique algae strains or proprietary processes they say can make fuel.
Agrisys, for example, has developed or licensed technology for growing and processing its algae in partnership with a research institute called CEHMM and a private technology firm called ARA, both in New Mexico. VandenBrekel says researchers there have been able to squeeze 125 gallons of oil daily from 1,000 gallons of algae-water mix piped from five acres of ponds.
But scientists say nearly four decades of research haven't answered the question whether anyone can do it at the scale the Florida companies envision — much less at a profit.
"There is a lot of hype because all these companies are chasing investors, so the bigger the numbers they use, the better hope they think they have of attracting dollars," says George Philippidis, energy director of the Applied Research Center in Miami, the business arm of Florida International University. Philippidis worked at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado during early efforts to research algal fuels and today consults with some of the algae companies popping out of the pond.
Philippidis sees real promise in a Florida algal-fuel industry because the state's exposure to sunlight and warm temperatures make it an ideal place to cultivate algae. But he estimates algal fuel is still about a 10-year bet. The technology, he says, still faces "significant challenges."
ENERGY in FLORIDA:
A Sector Portrait
The problem was cost. The most optimistic assumptions put algae oil production at $56 to $186 a barrel.
In 1996, with oil selling for less than $20 a barrel, the Clinton administration abandoned the Aquatic Species Program on economic grounds. But in recent years, climate change and growing concerns about U.S. dependence on imported oil have led to enormous public and private investment in all potential biofuels, including algae. Interest has intensified as oil prices have risen to their present levels of more than $80 a barrel.
A 2007 expansion of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard requires that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be blended into gasoline by 2022. Only 15 billion can come from corn ethanol, a fuel that has required huge financial subsidies and lots of water, even as it generates both pollution and fears about replacing food crops with fuel crops.