beer, algae and power

Our friend Sam over at Auto Blog Green just posted an interesting little piece on the New Belgium Brewery, creators of the legendary Fat Tire Amber Ale. It appears as though they’ve partnered with an alternative energy company to divert the waste CO2 generated from beer production into the creation of biodiesel (by way of algae). Here’s a clip:

The reason carbonated beverages have their name is the bubbles of carbon dioxide that are emitted. One of the byproducts of the beer brewing process is carbon dioxide gas. Now an environmentally- conscious brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, New Belgium Brewery is hooking up with nearby Solix Biofuels to make use of the waste CO2. The 5,000 metric tonnes of CO2 that New Belgium produces annually will be piped over to the Solix facility and pumped into their bioreactor to grow algae…

And here, for those of you who want to know more, is a clip from the “Rocky Mountain News“:

…The biodiesel technology belongs to two-year-old Solix Biofuels, located just 500 yards from New Belgium in an old coal-fired power plant. The firm, in alliance with Colorado State University scientists, is working on algae-based biodiesel.

New Belgium, which features windmills on its six-packs, has a green-tinged history. In 1999, it was the first major U.S. company to buy 100 percent wind power. Three years later, it developed a system to generate methane from its wastewater. Now, its algae deal may allow it to sell carbon-dioxide emission credits on the open market – a payment for reducing its carbon footprint.

Solix hasn’t produced one gallon of vehicle-ready fuel – yet. But company scientists are confident their idea will work – if they can get the algae to produce enough oil to grow quickly and within a cheap system.

“We know it works. The biology works. The algae grows,” said Solix CEO Doug Henston. “But can you get them to grow and produce the way we want them to?”

Algae have been under scrutiny for years as a source of biofuels because they can be coaxed to produce lipids, or fats. As single-celled micro-organisms, they grow quickly, efficiently and productively. And because they are photosynthetic micro-organisms, they use plain old sunshine, water and carbon dioxide to grow…

Lipid-producing algae are grown in a bioreactor that resembles an enormous, transparent plastic tube. Inside, the algae float in fluid. The system is injected with carbon dioxide, a byproduct of industrial factories. Rollers slowly squeeze the fluid through the tubes, keeping the algae in constant motion and allowing sunlight to reach all the plants. Within several weeks, the algae are harvested. Their oil is extracted, then refined into biodiesel fuel…

New Belgium Brewing Co. will provide the carbon dioxide to help Solix’s algae grow. The brewery produces 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, a byproduct of fermentation and boiler operations. It will be piped into Solix’s bioreactor. There, it will mix with water and sunshine to provide nutrients to algae, the fuel-producing organisms. These algae produce fats, and those fats are refined into biocrude and then biodiesel.

And here, because I’d hopelessly obsessive, is a clip from Green Car Congress on the technology being developed by Solix, in cooperation with Colorado State University:

The Solix photo-bioreactors for algae production are based upon 20 years of research (the Aquatic Species Program) originating at the National Renewal Energy Laboratory (NREL), and are massively scaleable, according to the company.

The algae grow within closed plastic bags, which reduces the possibility of infestation drastically. A novel low-energy temperature control system keeps the algae within a temperature range that optimizes growth.

The bioreactor primarily consists of two large transparent flattened tubes made of specialty plastics. Water-weighted rollers squeeze the algae-bearing fluid through the tubes as they slowly move down tracks built into concrete supports on the side of the tubes.

The peristaltic motion of the rollers creates a current inside the reactor, which force the algae to be in constant motion and allows more than just the top layer of algae to receive sunlight.

In turn, that allows the fluid depth of the reactor to be 12 inches, and thus does not restrict photosynthesis to the surface layer of the fluid–a traditional obstacle to making cost-efficient photosynthetic bioreactors.

Within the “bag” is a thermal layer that can be raised or lowered by the rollers to regulate the internal temperature of the bioreactor. The shape of the straps holding the foam is designed to maximize the fluid rotation within the reactor, presenting all the algae sequentially to the sun absorption zone in the top layers of the reactor. CO2 is injected into the photo-bioreactor for the photosynthesis reaction…

Algae cells are harvested from the fluid with a centrifuge. Once harvested, the oil will be extracted and the resulting oil can then be refined into biodiesel fuels through the same transesterification process currently used to refine other vegetative oil sources into biodiesel. The algae oil can also be refined into other liquid fuels, including ethanol and jet fuel.

Solix officials estimate that widespread construction of its photo-bioreactor system could meet the demand for the US consumption of diesel fuel–about 4 million barrels a day–by growing algae on less than 0.5% of the US land area, which is otherwise unused land adjacent to power plants and ethanol plants. The plants would also supply the requisite carbon dioxide…

I’m not sure how many metric tonnes of CO2 our local brewery produces, but one wonders if it might make sense to do something similar here… It doesn’t really sound, however, as though the problem they’re having is in the acquisition of CO2, but I do like the idea that beer could hold the solution to all the word’s energy problems though.

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  1. Sam
    Posted February 17, 2007 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    The Corner Brewery is ideally situated for such a project. If someone installed an algae biorefinery on the Motor Wheel site, the CO2 from the brewery could be piped over there and we could generate lots of renewable, biodegradable fuel. If only someone would step up.

  2. mark
    Posted February 17, 2007 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea very much, Sam. However, from what I can tell, the technology doesn’t really exist yet, and, even if I did, there are other available sources of CO2. I also don’t know that the Corner Brewery produces enough to CO2 to make it feasible. Other than that, however, I like it. Surely there’s someone out there in the audience with enough money to open an office and fund some research at the University of Michigan to look into it. Even if nothing came of it, it would be a great thing for our city. We really need something to feel optimistic about right now.

  3. ol' e cross
    Posted February 18, 2007 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I, for one, am ready to double my beer consumption for the greater good. (For those that doubt, I did so previously when I heard the MI Brewers Guild was giving matching funds to the Riverside park renewel.)

    If only someone can figure out how to extract a cure for cancer and AIDS from my soggy kidneys, the world will be a better place.

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