Minnesota Biofuels Company Draws Interest With Clean Diesel Fuel

April 20, 2009 11:30 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
As the U.S. pursuit of renewable energy resources continues, a Minnesota company that produces diesel fuel from algae has attracted financial, scientific and government interest.

A Use for Pond Scum?

The pond next to SarTec Corp. in Anoka County, Minn., has proven to have a valuable resource: pond scum.

With it, the biofuels company has produced clean diesel fuel using a “continuous flow” process, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In fact, SarTec can make approximately 1,000 gallons of diesel a week for $1.25 to $1.75 per gallon.

Products like restaurant waste, non-edible crops and ethanol waste oil can be used to make diesel as well.

Of the technology, SarTec chemist and industrialist Clayton McNeff explained, “We will license it and make money. We also want this to do as much good in the world as possible.”

Scientists, financiers and the federal government have all visited SarTec to learn more. McNeff said “Ever Cat Fuels” estimates it will produce about 4 million gallons of clean diesel a year using different sources.

“This technology has the potential to help with energy security and climate change,” the Star-Tribune quoted Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, as saying. “These are two of the most important issues we face in terms of our country's economic and environmental future.”
In 2008, researchers at the University of Kentucky announced that they had found a way to help reduce greenhouse gases and provide a new energy source, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

They suggested that algae could remove carbon dioxide from gases produced by coal-fired power plants and then be turned into fuel. “The appeal is that if you have a power plant where you burn coal, and you capture the CO2 and use that to produce fuel with algae, you effectively become twice as efficient in the amount of energy achieved per ton of CO2 emitted,” Rodney Andrews, director of the university’s Center for Applied Energy Research, stated.

But the university’s idea, like many alternative energy projects before it, has some hurdles to face. It will take three or four years to build a test facility for the project, and producing algae oil currently would cost between $18 and $30 a gallon.

According to BusinessWeek, Congress has mandated that the United States must use 21 billion gallons of "advanced" biofuels a year by 2022. However, companies may have trouble meeting that goal.

Analysis: Assessing the future of alternative energy

Money is a chief concern in developing alternative energy options. In 2008, Technology Review blogger Hemant Taneja said the economic climate might not help the situation get better any time soon.

“I submit that the continued development of our clean energy economy is now at risk with the advent of the economic crisis,” Taneja wrote.

In Wisconsin, where “cow power”—using cow manure to create electricity—is abundant, lack of alternative energy financing is one roadblock hindering further development of the resource, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We've got lots of projects that would be ready to go if the economics in some way were improved,” Richard Pieper, president of Pieper Power, the Milwaukee parent company of Clear Horizons, explained.

Tax incentives and electricity rates are also among the problems holding Wisconsin back from turning cow power into a larger operation. “We've got a bunch of opportunities in Wisconsin,” Pieper stated. “They're planned, but there's nothing going forward. The economics of the plants aren't where they need to be moving forward.”

Related Topic: New alternative energy possibilities

Scientists examined multiple possibilities for alternative energy sources, and made some promising announcements during 2008.

Tree Fungus
A fungus found on trees in the Patagonian rainforest was found to make, in certain conditions, the compounds found in diesel fuel. Gliocladium roseum can produce midlength hydrocarbons found in gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel, according to a study published in Microbiology.

“These are the first organisms that have been found that make many of the ingredients of diesel,” said Montana State University plant pathologist Gary Strobel, who led the research, to Environment News Service. “This is a major discovery.”

Landfill Methane
In an article by the Billings Gazette, Swarupa Ganguli, who works with the EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program, said 455 landfills around the United States were capturing the methane generated at their facilities and converting it into energy.

In Montana, officials at Billings Regional Landfill were planning to take a more unique approach to using captured methane by cleaning the gas and sending it through a natural gas pipeline to power homes and businesses. Fewer than 10 landfills participating in methane capture projects were actually cleaning their gas for this purpose.

Car Exhaust
Researchers for the German automaker BMW were trying to capitalize on the fact that cars can waste a lot of heat. They fitted a thermoelectric generator to the exhaust system of a test car to see if they can collect wasted heat and use it to make electricity. By coupling two metals together and keeping them at different temperatures, the generator created voltage.

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