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Ethanol firm's next bet: Algae

Article by: David Shaffer, Star Tribune - Oct. 22, 2011 SHENANDOAH, IOWA Green slime is growing in ponds next to an ethanol plant here, and Todd Becker intends to turn it into green money. Becker, CEO of the fourth-largest U.S. ethanol company, has entered an unusual joint venture that is part of a nationwide push to grow algae for biofuel. In covered ponds on the edge of this small Iowa town, the fast-growing, oil-rich microorganisms feed on carbon dioxide that formerly went out the ethanol plant's smokestack. But while the dream of the nation's emerging algae industry is to make fuel, Becker and his partners see a different way to make profits immediately -- in fish food and dietary supplements. "Some people say algae is ... years away from being profitable," said Becker, CEO of Omaha-based Green Plains Renewable Energy. "We say 10 months." The algae industry, whose trade group meets this week in Minneapolis, has long set its sights on developing a new generation of biofuels. The challenge has been making it at a competitive price, which some experts say could be years away. So Green Plains and some other companies are exploring other markets. In August, the company and a partner, BioProcess Algae, based in Portsmouth, R.I., installed commercial-scale algae-growing technology at Green Plains' Shenandoah ethanol plant. The companies plan to expand the operation and begin selling algae next spring. "We initially got into this thinking the fuel markets were where we want to go," Becker said in an interview at the Shenandoah plant. "We were going to make the algae, get the oil out of the algae and make fuel out of it." But Becker said the profits are in algae-based feeds for fish farms and livestock and algae-derived Omega-3 fatty acids for food and dietary supplements. The venture's algae last week passed a key test for poultry feed, and Becker said customers will be in place when commercial production begins next year. In two to three years, Becker said, Green Plains hopes to be running BioProcess Algae's "Grower Harvester" technology at all nine of its ethanol plants, including its northernmost one in Fergus Falls, Minn. The greenhouse-based system relies on sunlight, continuously harvested ponds and brush-like filaments on which algae grow. The farms are expected to operate in all but the coldest months. Read More