We are the new kids on the block and somebody has to be the first. Sara Volz: People think of algae as pond scum, but algae could potentially be part of the solution to our energy crises. The world is addicted to oil. I think we are really at that breaking point right now. Bruce Nelson: My grandpa came here in 1942. I’m the 4th generation. I came back from playing ball, did not know exactly what I wanted to do. I kind of came back here to figure it out. When you get that dirt under your fingernails it’s hard to get it out. It is true you know.
Jonathan Male: As one looks at the supply chain for bringing biofuels to fruition, you have at the beginning the growth of the crops, and then the harvesting and preprocessing, and getting them ready to go to a biorefinery such as Poet. There is an enormous amount of logistics in gathering in the amount of biomass that one needs to do a monthly consumption of a large biorefinery where you have 20 million gallons per year capacity at that plant when it’s fully on stream.
Daron Wilson: So inside here are the grinders that grind those bales that you see earlier. They grind it into smaller pieces and then that conveyor brings the ground biomass up to what we call the pretreatment process. That pretreatment process, through temperature, time, water, and PH, starts to break down the biomass. These tanks you see here are called sacrification tanks. We take the biomass that’s been ground and pretreated and enzymes added at that point. That’s where the sugars start to breakdown to a point where the yeast can start converting it to ethanol.
Matt Merritt: The challenge has always been how do we crack cellulose so we can get access to that sugar and make it into energy. And through DOE we got a pretty significant grant to bring this technology to commercial scale. Once these first plants get going we really think that cellulosic ethanol is something that is going to be able to expand to all parts of the country and really all parts of the world. The opportunity is there, the market is there, we need to keep this momentum going.
Bruce Nelson: We have a massive amount of stover on our farms. It’s going to be here whether we are producing cellulosic ethanol or not. We’ve been harvesting stover in a renewable and sustainable way. Now we have a second cash crop. It’s more jobs for the young farmers that are coming back to the farm, and so I think there is going to be even more people getting on board. And that what has to happen with this whole process.
Sara Volz: I grew up in Colorado Springs. I’ve lived here my whole life. Most of my friends were into sports which I was not very good at. But in high school, I was able to join the Science Olympiad team and the science bowl team, and I got really involved in my research. I was basically looking for an idea that had to do with chemistry or biology. And I also wanted an idea that addressed a major global issue. I actually heard about people who were making biodiesel that could go straight into diesel engines and they were doing that all in their garage. And that idea fascinated me.
A big problem with biofuels is where are we actually getting this oil from. That’s why I started looking at algae as an alternative oil source. This is actually, we are under my bed right now. This setup, this lab was something that I made the summer after my sophomore year of high school with some supplies I borrowed from a local school. I would spend all night doing some experiments on algae with a flashlight and a book if my parents would let me. Sometimes they caught me. There is a lot of really interesting new research into how we can possibly increase algae’s oil production and make it a more feasible source of these oils to be converted into fuel. That’s really where my interest was. I wanted to see if there was a way that I could impact the metabolism of the algae to try to make them overproduce oil.
Dr. Donald Veverka: There she is. How are you doing? Welcome back. It’s good to see you. She came to us as a Stem student. There was very little ramp up or spin-up time for Sara. She had done her reading.
Todd Pray: Making a project commercially viable a risky proposition. So we are here as a resource to the industry. Companies come to us with a test tube, with an idea, and we really help them move on a tech- to-market trajectory. Department of Energy invested over 20 million dollars in this facility. It’s flexible. It’s state of the art. This is something that not every company can invest in, early on especially.
Jonathan Male: it’s important for public-private partnerships to drive down the costs. Then once it’s competitive, once it’s sustainable, set up for the long term, it’s process control, its robust. Then it can have a profound impact. Then it can have consumer confidence.
Jonathan Wolfson: What we realized is that you can have a great idea, but the science may not follow your great idea. Ultimately, you need to learn from what the science tells you and you need to try, fail, make a change, try again, probably fail, make a change, and then you start to make improvements because finally, you find something that works. Then you make a change and it gets better.
Stephen Mayfield: We know that we can make fuel from algae. We simply have to get algae cheap enough that we can use it to fuel our cars and our trains and our planes. Jonathan Wolfson: People understand that there is a technology that reduces their environmental footprint, but they don’t know where they can get them. Women: I just like that it is saving the environment. It’s made here and it’s 50 cents less than what the regular gas is here.