Dow Chemical Co. and a Florida-based start-up have partnered on a project that uses algae to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol, which, if successful, could reduce the amount of natural gas Dow now uses to make plastics.

As part of its collaboration with Algenol Biofuels, Dow plans to build a 24-acre plant near its operations in Freeport, TX, that would be fed with CO2 emissions from its nearby chemical plants. The algae would be grown inside a clear chamber using a sea water solution, and photosynthesis would break down the CO2 into oxygen and ethanol.

If successful, the ethanol could be used to fuel Dow’s facilities to make plastics, the company said. Natural gas is the primary fuel now used by Dow, and even though gas is considered a clean-burning fuel, the ethanol produced through the algae process would be cleaner, said Dow. The oxygen created by the algae process also would be used to burn coal more cleanly, and as the coal-burning process produced more CO2, that in turn would be pumped back into the algae process.

“This project and the innovative technology involved offers great promise in the battle to help slow, stop and reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dow CEO Andrew N. Liversis.

Algenol applied for a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to support the pilot, and if it’s approved, the collaborators plan to demonstrate the technology “at a level to sufficiently prove that it can be implemented on a commercial scale,” Dow said. In addition to Dow and Algenol, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Membrane Technology & Research Inc. would contribute additional science, expertise and technology.

“Everyone has been thinking of carbon dioxide as just a pollutant, and that’s wrong,” said Algenol CEO Paul Woods. “We have to start thinking about carbon dioxide as if it’s a reusable, recyclable product.”

Algenol said its proprietary “direct-to-ethanol” process does not require food-based feedstocks, harvesting, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, fresh water or “large” amounts of fossil fuel. The ratio of energy output to fossil fuel output is 8:1, the company said. The pilot project is expected to employ around 300 people and consume about two tons of CO2/day, which is enough to produce 120-140 gallons of ethanol, according to Algenol.

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