GPRE hosts algae bioreactor grand opening at Iowa ethanol plant

By Kris Bevill | April 15, 2011

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Shenandoah, Iowa, April 15 to cut the ribbon for the official grand opening of BioProcess Algae LLC’s commercial-scale algae bioreactor project, located at Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc.’s 65 MMgy ethanol plant.  The project, which is a collaborative venture between GPRE, filtration product manufacturer Clarcor Inc., BioProcessH20 LLC, a wastewater purification technology company, and NTR plc, an international renewable energy investment group, converts waste heat, waste water and CO2 from GPRE’s ethanol plant to algae using trademarked Grower Harvester bioreactors. It is believed to be the first project of its kind in the world.

GPRE CEO Todd Becker commented on the uniqueness of the project and its potential to transform the ethanol industry during his speech at the event. “What we are accomplishing today is showing the world that not only does carbon have value, but that carbon and other byproducts from this ethanol plant can create a product that will give Americans food, feed and fuel,” he said.

When the project was launched three years ago, it was assumed there would be significant market demand for the algae end products by the time bioreactors could produce at a commercial scale, he said. However, the project has advanced so rapidly that it has reached commercialization faster than markets could be developed. Therefore, GPRE and others have now taken on the role of product developers as well. Becker said they are currently developing markets to utilize the algae biomass as animal feed, as an ingredient for the pharmaceutical industry and for renewable fuels production. This includes biodiesel and ethanol. He noted that testing is currently under way to determine the viability of sending the algae directly to refineries to produce biofuel and they are also receiving promising results on tests to produce ethanol from the algae.

As a testament to the project’s rapid advancement, BioProcess Algae CEO Tim Burns announced during the event that engineering for the project’s first commercial algae farm has been completed and a groundbreaking is planned “within a few days.” The farm will also be located at the Shenandoah ethanol plant site. The company had previously announced it wasn’t planning to construct the commercial algae farm until next year.

Calling it a “remarkable project,” Vilsack noted four components contributing to its success during his speech. "There is obviously significant investment in this facility,” he said. “It's going to be important for us to continue to look for ways to bring capital into the rural parts of this country. We do this by focusing on the second component, which is innovation. That's what attracts investment. It's also about networking. It's not just about one company; it's multiple companies working together. And it's also multiple industries. This is great because we've got 400 facilities across the country that are producing ethanol and biodiesel, and we want those kinds of marriages." The fourth component, he said is a "sense of place." Rural America is not afraid to embrace ethanol and the citizens understand agriculture and its ability to provide diverse opportunities, such as what is being accomplished in Iowa at Shenandoah, he said.

 The commercial-scale bioreactors officially unveiled during the grand opening began operating in February. It is the second phase of a two-part project that began with the operation of smaller-scale reactors in October 2009. The $11.5 million project has received $4 million—$2 million for each phase—in assistance from the state of Iowa through its Iowa Power Fund grant program. BioProcess Algae’s end goal is to license its algae production process to existing ethanol producers.