By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
CRANSTON, R.I. — What is a biofuel? It’s best known as the gasoline additive ethanol, which like many biofuels is derived from a plant. Yet, biofuels take other forms, such as biodiesel, wood pellets and even firewood.
For Larry Dressler biofuels present several promising businesses with dramatic environmental benefits. Dressler, founder of Tomorrow BioFuels, has two primary operations: a carbon-capture system and algae farm. The two are interconnected and offer plausible offshoot businesses.
Carbon capture has huge potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Dressler’s patented FALCON system is designed to draw carbon dioxide from big carbon emitters such as power plants and cement companies. One of the big impediments Dressler solved is infusing CO2 in water so plants can consume it. Through a liquid “absorber” the carbon dioxide is separated from other emissions, degassed and introduced into water as feed for algae.
In 2009, Dressler built a 5,200-square-foot greenhouse on the outskirts of a local industrial park to showcase the technology and allow potential customers to examine the system.
Several pool-sized tanks inside the greenhouse grow algae, which feed off the captured CO2. The algae is harvested for several products, such as animal feed, or ground into a powdery nutritional supplement, such as the popular spirulina. The algae also converts to a fuel oil for power generation, home heating oil and vehicle fuel.
Overall, both systems play into the central goals of the green economy, Dressler said. “When people talk about being carbon neutral, we have the potential to be carbon negative," he said.
Rhode Island's renewable energy fixed-pricing program recently included power derived from anaerobic digestion, which burns methane — a biogas — from food waste to create electricity and fertilizer. Dressler has partnered with NEO Energy LLC of Portsmouth, N.H., to explore building a digester in Rhode Island.
Carbon dioxide from the system would feed algae while other gases would be burned to control the temperature in the algae tanks. The algae and compost from the digester could be used as organic fertilizer or other feed stocks.
Dressler learned about the energy and biofuel business while growing up and working for his family’s Pawtucket-based vegetable oil refinery, Colfax Inc. The company processed oil for baking and fryer oil for Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In 1991, the company built a 63-megawatt power facility that sold energy generated by heat from the boilers used by Colfax to process cooking oil. The power company was sold in 1999, and Dressler marketed vegetable oils as a broker. In 2003, he developed an interest in biofuels and biodiesel. Algae, he soon discovered, offered much higher oil production than other biofuel crops like soy.
“And one of the main reasons is you get a crop a day, depending on the algae species," he said. "It’s just fast-growing.”
Controlling the nutrients, such as CO2, also allows for precise volumes of algae and predictable pricing for customers, something petroleum can’t promise, Dressler said. During the next 18 months, Dressler plans to expand to a 1- to 3-acre facility for producing food products from the algae. About 15 acres would be needed to expand the biofuel development of algae. A full-scale expansion on the business would create some 15-20 jobs, Dressler predicted.
Dressler has invested about $300,000 of his own money into the business and Tomorrow BioFuels received $250,000 in a loan and grant from the state Renewable Energy Fund (EDC). Four employees conduct ongoing research for future products and applications. Dressler meets with prospective customers interested adopting the systems.
“At some time, we’re going to have to address carbon emissions and we believe we have a solution to address that,” Dressler said.