Algae farms, like this one in Texas, could become a more common sight in the Midwest.

MINNEAPOLIS — Algae seems an unlikely hero in the green energy arena. To most people it’s an aquatic plant life they avoid when swimming and look away from in disgust when viewing it from a boat or on a walk.

Yet to hear the advocates and entrepreneurs at the Algae Biomass Summit this week in Minneapolis, the green stuff could indeed be an important part of the nation’s energy mix. Sponsored by the Algal Biomass Organization, the four-day conference drew nearly 800 people to a downtown hotel to a deep dive into every aspect of algae production, research and commercialization.

There are a few things to know about the algae industry. One is that companies grow the algae in controlled environments through a complex and varied methodology that has little to do with what is seen in lakes and oceans. Just as corn is a crop, so is algae intended for biofuels and other products.

Second, there’s a touch of magic connected to its potential in that algae requires a lot of carbon dioxide to grow. Emissions captured from power plants and other industrial sources could become the feedstock of the algae industry.

Third, real money is being spent by investors and the federal government on algae commercialization. In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars.

And the Midwest has great potential in this area.

While much of the research activity is in California –- industry leaders Solazyme and Sapphire Energy are there -– the Midwest has several promising home-grown firms as well as plants serving clients outside the region. Solazyme just opened a plant in Peoria, Illinois, to grow and process algae.

Great Plains Renewable Energy, Inc. has an ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, attached to bioreactors built by BioProcess Algae. The ethanol plant supplies CO2 to the bioreactors, which produces feeds for fish farms and livestock. The initial plan was to produce fuel, but the money is in other products –- for now.

Phycal, Inc. does laboratory testing in St. Louis and has a pilot project next to its Highland Heights, Ohio, facility. Its first algae farm, however, will be in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota had several researchers who spoke at the conference on panels and attendees got a chance to visit the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory on the Mississippi River. The lab has experimental bioreactors located on the river.

The algal organization is based in Minnesota, and the co-chair of the conference was Todd Taylor, a leading expert in the field and attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, PA.

As the algae industry grows what could emerge is a new cash crop not only for the Midwest, but the entire country, and another source of fuel and plant-based products.

Turns out, algae isn’t so bad after all.

Photo by AgriLife via Creative Commons

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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