Study expected to find that southeast corner of Missouri would be ideal place to produce algae for biofuels; region has ample supplies of water, flat land, which would make it easier to build algae farms
KANSAS CITY, Missouri
August 22, 2011
– Say "biofuel," and most people think "ethanol." But someday they might think "algae-diesel." And if they do, Missouri is likely to have helped make it happen.
The idea of turning algae, also known as pond scum, into diesel fuel may seem far-fetched. But Missouri is already a leader in the research and development of different strains of algae that produce oil, similar to vegetable oil, that can be used as biodiesel fuel.
And a new study is expected to say what was once unexpected — that Missouri would be a good place to produce the algae.
One big fan of algae's potential is Jay Hakes, the author of the book "A Declaration of Energy Independence" and a former head of the federal Energy Information Administration. Although he said it still should be considered a "Hail Mary" because of the "limited amount of research and testing so far," it had "a good chance of success."
Utah State University chemistry professor Lance Seefeldt went so far as to say making biodiesel from algae was "perhaps the most important scientific challenge facing humanity" this century, and Hakes agreed.
Missouri research institutions have received about $100 million in grants for laboratory work and field testing to help make fuel from algae a reality. But producing it will require vast amounts of water, seemingly giving the advantage to states such as California or Hawaii.
That has led venture capitalists and others intrigued by the commercial prospects to largely ignore landlocked states such as Missouri as production locations.
But a study to be released this fall concludes that Missouri's Bootheel, in the southeast corner of the state, along with a few adjacent counties would be an ideal place for algae production.
"This was a surprise," said Tom Grant, a program manager for MRIGlobal, part of the group conducting the study. "I think Missouri will be the perfect place to grow it."
MRIGlobal, formerly called Midwest Research Institute, partnered with Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Missouri for a $180,000 grant from the Missouri Technology Corp., a public-private partnership, to consider the possibility of an algae industry in the state.
The study isn't finished, so final recommendations won't be available until September. But enough is known to convince the researchers that the state's potential to build an algae industry has been underestimated. Besides ample supplies of water, the state has plenty of flat land, which would make it easier to build the algae farms.
There are trillions of cubic feet of water in the Bootheel and a few other nearby "lowland" counties, including Stoddard, Cape Girardeau and Scott.
The area has the highest annual rainfall in the state and deep reserves of groundwater that have been barely diminished over the years, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Steve Duke, director of the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, said the water resource was something "we're real proud of," and the region would be interested in adding another crop such as algae.
That's seconded by Meg Benson, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Kennett, which is in the heart of the Bootheel. She said the water supplies had allowed the region in the last decade to become a major exporter of rice.
"I've heard rumblings" about algae farming, she said. "I'm glad to hear it's on the front burner."
Algae development could get started within three years, though a full-blown industry could take a decade.
Venture capitalists are scouting for locations for algae farms and have picked a few sites, including in Hawaii, for the ponds or closed systems needed to grow it.
Missouri has ambitions to be a leader in the production of biomass crops and has already received federal grants to help farmers grow prairie grasses. Those would be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, which wouldn't use corn or other potential food crops. Algae farming would give Missouri another way to be in the biofuels forefront.
Algae comes in many varieties that can turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into a vegetable-type oil, much like the soybean oil used in biodiesel today.
What gets observers especially excited about algae is it can produce vastly more oil than plants — an estimated 3,000 gallons per acre of crop, more than 30 times what soybeans can produce. And some algae strains can more than double their weight in just a few hours in the right circumstances.
The science is still being tweaked to make all this a commercial reality. But some algae strains have made the jump from the laboratory and are being field tested.
Algae's practical prospects also were improved by the discovery that after the oil has been extracted, the leftovers are about 50 percent protein and can be sold as food to fish farms.
Missouri has contributed to algae research through the partnership of MRIGlobal, the University of Missouri and Washington University.
And the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis is genetically modifying algae strains in an effort to produce the right combination of hardiness and oil production.
The question now is whether the state can retain a big role as algae moves toward commercial production. Those involved in the soon-to-be released study think the state's chances are looking much better.
"It's an opportunity for Missouri," said Grant, of MRIGlobal. "It could dominate the freshwater algae enterprise."
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