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The math on turning algae into fuel

100 acres of algae can suck up most of the CO2 from a 100 megawatt power plant. And animals can eat the end product.

Half Moon Bay, Calif--A number of companies have sketched out plans to convert algae into a feedstock for transportation fuel, but GreenFuel Technologies is farther along in bringing the concept to market than most.

And the Cambridge, Mass.-based company trotted out numbers at the Think Tomorrow Today conference sponsored by ThinkEquity Partners here (say that three times fast) to illuminate why the idea is getting so much attention.

First off, algae grows rapidly and grows constantly, which means that algae ponds can produce more oil per hectare in a year than traditional plant crops, said GreenFuel CFO Guillermo Espiga.

A hectare pond filled with algae can produce 15,000 to 80,000 liters of vegetable oil a year. Only about 6,000 liters of palm oil can be squeezed out of a hectare a year. Corn is only good for 120 hectares of oil a year, Espiga said.

Algae can also be converted into a variety of materials, insulating producers from changes in commodity prices to some degree. It can be turned into alcohol for ethanol, biomass that can be burned in a furnace, or animal feed (which can also be sold under the Soylent Green brand name in grocery stores). A single hectare can generate 8,000 gallons of oil, 2,400 gallons of ethanol a year and 2.6 tons of glycerin, a material bought by the cosmetics industry, he said.

But there's more. GreenFuel plans to produce algae in ponds next to coal-fired power plants. The carbon dioxide from the plants is captured and provides the food for growing the algae. At a 100 megawatt coal-burning power plant, 100 acres of algae ponds, optimized with species that grow well in that particular environment, will consume 90 percent of the CO2 from the plant.

Thus, power plants that deploy the technology will generate revenue from carbon credits as well as make money from selling feedstocks. Espiga estimates that there are 1,750 power plants in the U.S. that sit next to spare real estate that could accommodate some of GreenFuel's algae ponds. The standard size of the algae facilities will be around 250 acres, he said.

So far, GreenFuel has only opened demonstration plant but expects to open a full fledged power plant in Arizona this year. By 2012, the company hopes to hit revenues of $100 million. It will license the technology as well as build its own power plant/algae facilities.