VIDEO/PHOTOS: Algenol Biofuels unveils south Lee laboratory that will grow ethanol

Video from NBC-2

— Wearing a green tie, Paul Woods cut a green ribbon on a state-of-the-art green laboratory in south Lee County.

On Tuesday, he showed off biofuels and green chemistry labs that he’s dreamed about for more than 25 years, made possible by a $10 million grant from Lee County.

The research and development labs — stretching about 40,000 square feet — were unveiled to dozens of business, government, community and academic leaders during a grand opening ceremony at his company’s headquarters off Lee Road, just north of Alico Road.

“We have a real opportunity here — a very important opportunity here,” said Woods, CEO of Algenol Biofuels Inc. “We can grow our own energy here.”

What the company is growing is algae that can make ethanol to power cars and produce other green chemicals, such as polyethylene, which can be used to make hundreds of products, from plastic wrap to shoes.

In January, Lee County commissioners narrowly voted 3-2 in favor of giving Algenol a multimillion-dollar grant from a $25 million economic development fund designed to create jobs and diversify the local economy. It sparked controversy because the grant request was so large, and it was being used to help pay for construction.

“Algenol is doing everything it can to expand its presence here in Lee County,” Woods said.

Woods called the opening of the laboratory a “significant milestone.” There are plans to build a biorefinery at the headquarters too, so that everything can be done at the one location in south Lee County, from the research to making the final product.

“We are going to try to make history on this site,” Woods said.

The company now has more than 100 employees. About 65 of them are in south Lee County. More are coming from West Palm Beach, where there’s a research operation that will be consolidated into the new laboratory.

By 2025, Algenol plans to produce more than 20 billion gallons of ethanol a year for the U.S. market at multiple locations, including south Lee County.

Last year, the company received a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a pilot biorefinery in Texas.

Woods first came up with the idea of using algae directly to produce ethanol in 1984, while he was studying genetics at the University of Western Ontario. During a tour of the new laboratory in south Lee County, he described himself as the slowest overnight success ever.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” he said.

The new research and development labs in south Lee County took more than 50,000 man hours to build, generating many local jobs.

The labs are the most advanced and unique of their kind, using the company’s patented technology, which forces algae to undergo photosynthesis, to absorb carbon dioxide and ultimately to produce ethanol.

The algae comes from seawater that has been collected from around the world.

At the lab, hybrid algae is grown in seawater with the help of sunlight and added nutrients. No fresh water is required in the process of making the ethanol or any of the green chemicals.

The company has collected more than 100,000 species of algae. The goal is to identify and produce the strongest and the most adaptable algae.

In growing rooms, the lighting can be simulated for any region on earth, and there’s the ability to adjust the temperature, starting at 45 degrees and going up to 115 degrees.

Enzymes are added to the algae to make them grow faster, turning each cell into an “ethanol production machine,” Woods said.

In the new building, there are six highly specialized, brightly lit growing rooms. They are packed with test tubes that contain a bubbling green liquid. The darker the liquid, the more algae there is inside the tube.

“The whole process is driven by light,” said Craig Smith, the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Once the hybrid algae is produced in the test tubes it can be put into the company’s proprietary photobioreactor, which spurs photosynthesis and creates ethanol.

The grand opening ceremony was attended by Lee County Commissioners Tammy Hall and Ray Judah, who voted in favor of the $10 million grant for Algenol. Former commissioner Bob Janes, who died earlier this year, cast the other yes vote.

Hall said Algenol is the type of company that’s needed to help turn things around, to help diversify the local economy.

Judah agreed.

“They are going to be the catalyst. They are going to bring in like-minded businesses,” he said.

He called the opening of the laboratory a defining moment, not just for Lee County, but for the world.

He said if Algenol does what it plans to do, Woods will deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. The ethanol produced from algae, he said, could help stabilize oil prices and the global financial markets.

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, applauded county commissioners for taking charge and putting money behind such a project, rather than looking to the federal government for help. “Your leadership is outstanding,” he said.

Algenol is working closely with Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero and has hired some of its graduates already to work in the labs.

Tara Caruso, 22, who lives in Bonita Springs and graduated from FGCU with a degree in environmental studies in May, attended the grand opening and passed out her resume. She was impressed with the company after learning how the algae is grown during a tour.

“I would love the opportunity to work there, if they give it to me,” she said.

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