Inventor turns algae into fuel

Jim Sears, Colorado State University team on Solix Biofuels

Jim Sears kneeled to split starter kindling with an old machete, tossing the sticks into a wood stove on the cement floor of his Boulder garage. The sound of dogs dissatisfied with a single ball-toss penetrated from the backyard.

From this nondescript spot, Sears tinkers with a project that he says could help the United States realize energy independence while sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Sears is a serial inventor and entrepreneur who has worked on everything from mine-seeking sonar to space-based optics systems. In this garage - also his office and workshop - he developed a sort of computer mouse that reads text aloud and a cow-mounted device to detect the estrous cycle. With a chuckle, he referred to that as the "hump-o-meter."

Sharing space with a remote-control helicopter, musical instruments, microscopes and machine tools stood a chest-high roll of bubble wrap, a sort of translucent hay bale with enough padding for a thousand shipped presents.

It is part of Sears' latest effort, a development that has sparked a garage-based startup company called Solix Bioenergy. Solix is developing a system that would brew billions of gallons of diesel fuel while diverting massive amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. It would do it using great, sealed pools of algae - verdant waterbeds spread across tracts the size of cities.

"It's pretty audacious, trying to solve our energy problem," Sears said on Wednesday evening.

At a press conference at Colorado State University on Thursday, officials from CSU joined Sears and others to unveil Solix which, with CSU's help, aims to commercialize Sears' algae-to-oil technology within two years.

"We're facing two global challenges: depletion of our petroleum reserves and a buildup of greenhouse gases," said Bryan Willson, director of CSU's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. "This process harnesses photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide and energy captured from the sun into an economical petroleum substitute."

Solix joined what Sears said are six companies worldwide trying to harness single-celled, swimming plants to produce fuel through photosynthesis using industrial carbon dioxide emissions as a key input. One, Greenfuel Technologies Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., announced a deal with a South African biodiesel producer in late November, to generate up to about 6 million gallons of algae-driven biodiesel per year.

Sears says Solix technology is based on work done at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden until 1997, when NREL's Aquatic Species Program was mothballed. A full-scale Solix project would coexist with a coal-fired power plant, bubbling exhaust gas through water and absorbing much of the carbon dioxide, Sears said.

Coal fired power plants produce an estimated 40 percent of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions. Utility industry leaders and policymakers anticipate some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade program to force utilities to limit greenhouse-gas emissions in the coming years.

The carbon-dioxide-rich water would flow to a farm - ideally spanning several square miles - consisting of hundreds or thousands of "photo bioreactors," which Sears characterized as "300-foot-long waterbeds." They are 20 feet wide and a foot deep.

Unlike the NREL designs, which were open-air, the bioreactors sealed their algae in plastic. While still providing natural sunlight, sealing prevents contamination and also simplifies temperature regulation, both posed problems at NREL.

Based on NREL's research, Solix and CSU are studying 20 varieties of algae. The preferred forms can consist of up to 50 percent vegetable oil, Sears said.

With water-weighted rollers stirring and churning the mix, algae exhale oxygen - which would be skimmed off and pumped back to the power station - and multiply as often as once a day, Sears said.

Harvested occasionally, the algae would produce between a gallon and two gallons of fuel per square meter per year in addition to carbohydrates and proteins that could be converted to fuel or feed, Sears said. He says his algae-based biodiesel production is 100 times more efficient than traditional biodiesel, which is primarily soy-based in the United States.

The National Biodiesel Board says U.S. production of plant-based biodiesel could reach 250 million gallons in 2006, triple the amount produced in 2005. That's about a half percent of the roughly 50 billion gallons of diesel that were consumed in the United States last year.

Sears said the company has been financed by individual angel investors and has about 10 employees in addition to student and faculty help at CSU. A test reactor is already working at CSU, and the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins said it will install a pilot bioreactor.