Innovation drives biofuel industry investments in Tampa Bay region

Renewable energy industry thought leaders in the Tampa Bay region and beyond are enthusiastic about developing biofuels because doing so represents a relatively affordable, accessible solution toward cleaner and potentially cheaper domestic energy.

Biofuels derive from biomass — living plants and animal byproducts that can be readily replaced. While some methods of biofuel production burn this organic matter to derive chemical energy from photosynthesized solar radiation, biomass can be converted into an array of gaseous and flammable liquid products that are classified as biofuels.

In comparison, the traditional production of fossil fuels, such as crude oil and coal, relies on tapping a dwindling supply of ancient organic matter that has been geologically transformed over millions of years. 

Improving technologies and a greater public interest in alternative fuels has helped open new avenues for funding and research opportunities around the globe in recent years. 

Here in the Tampa Bay area, innovators are investing millions of dollars to invent new bioenergy technologies or improve existing ones. 

University of South Florida, Culture BioSystems, Tampa 

George Philippidis, Ph.D. is an associate professor of sustainable energy at USF’s Patel College of Global Sustainability. Over the last quarter century, Philippidis has seen the bioenergy industry take major strides. 

“I started my career in this field at NREL, when biofuels were still at their infancy,” says Philippidis, referring to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a facility that was established in 1974 to study energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

Today, Philippidis is leading a team of researchers at USF who are dedicated to developing, assessing, and commercializing the technologies that produce biofuel and other forms of renewable energy. 

“Biofuels have come a long way. We now see the first small-scale production plants being built in the U.S. to produce sustainable biofuels from inedible sources, such as biomass and algae, [which helps] avoid the food versus fuel issue,” he says. 

Algae represent a significant area of research right now for Philippidis. He, along with researchers at renewable energy firm Culture BioSystems, are in the process of commercializing biofuel produced from algae. 

“[Algae] can yield a hydrocarbon that can be used as car fuel,” explains Lawrence Walmsley, CEO of Culture BioSystems. “Yes, [this fuel] does put out carbon emissions, but since it comes from a plant, which absorbs carbon dioxide, this biofuel offers carbon neutrality.” 

One of the major benefits algae-based biofuel offers is that it is a “drop-in” fuel – one that does not require special or modified automobile engines. “This biofuel has the same properties as crude oil,” Walmsley adds. 

Algae-derived biofuel has been researched since the late 1970s, when the NREL was testing algae as a potential biofuel source in the Aquatic Species Program

“When oil prices decreased in the 1990s, interest fell away in funding these research programs. This changed in the summer of 2008, when oil prices surged and interest in alternative energies grew again.” 

Today, Walmsley estimates there are 15 to 20 algae biomass farms operating in the United States, perhaps most notably Sapphire Energy. The San Diego-based company, which received major funding from Bill Gates, produces crude oil made from algae. 

“One of the great things about these algae farms is that they can use either freshwater or salt water, and the algae can be grown in shallow, manmade ponds located in places like the [South Dakota] Badlands and the desert,” Walmsley explains. 

His goal is to help introduce algae crude oil to a larger commercial market, and that is what he and the USF researchers are working toward now with the aid of a two-year grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Halfway through the funding period, Walmsley and the USF team are making headway. 

“Airlines have been quite aggressive at embracing algae, as has the military, particularly the U.S. Navy,” Walmsley says. “Its use will become more prevalent in small passenger cars and eventually trucks and other large vehicles, which presently use diesel fuel.” 

He says widespread adoption of green crude oil may resemble a domino effect. “As you start getting more agreements, you can build larger facilities. The more you produce, the cheaper it gets to produce, and thus more people will buy it.” 

Algenol, Fort Myers, Lee County 

Fort Myers biofuel firm Algenol made news earlier in September [2015] when it announced an agreement with Boca Raton-based Protec Fuel Management to commercially market and distribute an algae-based ethanol product. 

“This is the first time ethanol made from algae is being distributed commercially,” says Algenol CEO Paul Woods. 

Algenol, established in 2006, focuses on a patented Direct-to-Ethanol technology that involves a proprietary blend of algae, saltwater, sunlight and recycled carbon dioxide. “Algenol produces the four most important transportation fuels, [including] ethanol, gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for approximately $1.30 per gallon,” adds Woods. 

The firm’s process for converting algae into fuel is far more efficient than corn-based ethanol production, with Algenol yielding 8,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year versus 420 gallons of fuel per acre per year for corn. 

The new deal with Protech means 18 million gallons of algae-derived ethanol will be distributed annually from a commercial plant to be developed in Central Florida in 2016 and 2017. This new plant will provide E-15 (fuel that is 15 percent ethanol based) and E-85 (51 to 83 percent ethanol) for retail fuel stations as well as fleet vehicle applications. This new development, says Woods, is a step in the right direction for Sunshine State drivers. 

“Florida drivers pay 25 cents a gallon for corn ethanol to be shipped from the Midwest. Algenol’s aim is to make certain that Florida motorists benefit from our technology and get the savings passed onto them.” 

US EnviroFuels, Riverview, Hillsborough County

US EnviroFuels in Riverview may not produce ethanol, but the firm is leading the way for commercial implementation of biofuel in the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida. Ethanol, which is a clean, high-octane renewable fuel mainly produced from agricultural crops such as sugar cane and corn, has been around for decades and is widely used in Brazil. 

The United States would benefit if it were further utilized here, says US EnviroFuels president Bradley Krohn, Ph.D. 

“I like to promote the benefits of ethanol as the four E’s,” Krohn says, listing out his four “E’s” as the environment, economic benefits, energy security and engine performance. 

“Ethanol reduces tailpipe emissions that cause ozone and smog. Ethanol also reduces green house gas emissions as compared to [conventional] gasoline,” he says. “Ethanol keeps fuel dollars in our country and helps offset the flow of dollars to oil-producing countries. 

“Ethanol plants stimulate the local economy and create direct and indirect jobs for the local community,” he continues. “Ethanol production helps reduce our dependency on imported oil from oil-producing countries that are hostile and unfriendly to the U.S.” 

Krohn, explaining ethanol’s benefits for automobile engines, says “it is an oxygenate that helps gasoline burn more efficiently and cleanly, thereby reducing carbon deposits in engines.” 

Krohn says that all automobile manufacturers design their cars for E-10 fuel, and many offer E-15 compatibility. “NASCAR runs its races on E-15. If E-15 is good enough for NASCAR racecars, it ought to be good enough to run in a soccer mom’s minivan!” 

While NASCAR and, yes, soccer moms, may embrace E-15, getting the oil industry to warm up to higher percentages of ethanol in U.S. gasoline is a different story. 

“Much of the oil industry is pushing back against blends of ethanol greater than 10 percent, in particular E-15, which is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and E-85, which is for flex fuel vehicles that can use E-85 or E-10 gasoline,” says Krohn. “The resistance is because big oil does not want to give up market share to ethanol. Consequently, our country continues down a path of dependency on petroleum and especially dependency on imported oil,” he expounds. 

Krohn, who is watching the industry evolve on a nationwide basis, is hopeful that the oil industry will recognize the multifaceted benefits that ethanol provides. As the ethanol market grows in Florida and throughout the Southeast, his company will continue answering the call by developing several ethanol plants. Plans call for the first two ethanol plants to be constructed at the Port of Tampa and Port Manatee. 

MagneGas, Pinellas County

Out of a nondescript warehouse just north of the Tarpon Springs sponge docks operates a small but growing company that aims to become one of the nation’s leading biofuel firms. 

The rise of MagneGas is the stuff of American dreams, built on principles founded by ex-Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Ruggero Santilli. Immigrating to the United States with his wife from Italy in 1967, the nuclear physicist worked with NASA and eventually developed a technology called submerged plasma arc gasification, which can gasify carbon-rich liquids into hydrogen-based fuel for industrial and commercial purposes. 

Santilli’s son, Ermanno, who operates MagneGas on the scientific principles of his dad’s groundbreaking research, has seen the company that his father founded in 2007 flourish with major clients such as the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, the New York City Fire Department, and several large utility companies. 

MagneGas gasifies liquid waste, such as vegetable oil, to produce a cleaner natural gas alternative called MagneGas2 that is ideal for uses such as cutting metal, cooking or heating, or powering bi-fuel vehicles. 

“There is a ready market,” says the younger Santilli, who has served as the company’s CEO since July 2012. “We’ve sold 100,000 cylinders in the last three years.” 

MagneGas prices their product at around 20 percent less than acetylene, and Santilli says that’s only one benefit his product offers. “MagneGas2 is a safer, cleaner, cheaper alternative to acetylene, which is a highly volatile chemical that can easily combust or explode if its containing cylinder is jostled or exposed to a spark. If a cylinder of acetylene even tilts too quickly, it has to be placed in a corner and left alone for several hours because of the increased risk of fire or explosion,” Santilli cautions.

“Firefighters have a different procedure for fighting acetylene fires, and OSHA recommends companies use alternatives to acetylene.”

MagneGas2 burns much hotter than acetylene, which is a benefit in an application such as metal cutting. 

“Acetylene burns at 6,300 degrees Fahrenheit whereas MagneGas2 burns as hot as 10,000 degrees,” he explains. This extra heat increases the cutting efficiency of a blowtorch from 40 to 100 percent according to company estimates, which can translate to faster rescues in cases such as first responders extricating victims who are trapped in a car. 

The Clearwater Fire Department has already used MagneGas2 on the job. It proved beneficial to removing massive steel girders that blocked Gulf to Bay Boulevard in Clearwater after a semi-tractor trailer truck struck the underside of the old U.S. 19 overpass, collapsing the old roadway structure. 

MagneGas plans to innovate in other areas, too. It operates a mobile unit that can gasify liquid and sterilize agriwaste. The company is also currently testing a process that converts waste from coal power plants into fuel, lowering emissions and creating cheap fuel from re-combusted flue gases. 

Santilli says he owes the company’s success to his team and the support of shareholders, the latter of whom now number 7,000 – a 37 percent increase in just six months. 

“We welcome shareholders here to meet the team, see the fuel, and learn how this process works. We’re thankful that our shareholders have helped us grow.” Santilli likes calling MagneGas a “no-compromise” company because he says his product does not cost more, require more time, or pose other negatives in the pursuit of cleaner energy. 

MagneGas is negotiating contract with more major clients, including two major cruise lines, Santilli says. By early 2016, MagneGas plans to move to a bigger facility in Pinellas Park near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.