Fill ‘er Up Please . . . with Algae

February 2nd, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | 1 Comment »

With fossil fuels clearly on the decline, we are certainly seeing investments swing towards alternative bio fuels. And, I’m not talking about bio fuels where the ethanol is derived from corn, sugar cane, soy, or sugar beets – all of which result in competing demands between foods and the biofuel sources, thus inflating food prices. What I’m referring to is more along the lines of what we’re seeing from small start up companies and young entrepreneurs – alternative sources like algae.

Found easily in ponds and seas, this “great green hope” can be used for generating huge amounts of energy. Moreover they do not utilize fresh water resources and are biodegradable, thus posing no threat to the environment. They can grow in a range of environments including salt water and contaminated water with just the presence of sunlight and water needed for it to thrive. The plant, rich in oil uses photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide and water to energy, which in turn helps it grow by leaps and bounds in just a matter of days. This makes it an easily accessible oil resource, which can be even grown on marginal lands that are useless for crop production.

While the raw form is available as biocrude, it can further be refined to generate other energy sources like gasoline, diesel and jet fluid. Ethanol production is possible if strains of algae with less oil and rich in carbohydrates are used.

The production of algae is limited to open pond systems and water sources close to carbon dioxide. Instead of utilizing the scarce land resources, scientists have come up with concentrated photobioreactors for enabling large-scale algae production.

Studying algae as a source of fuel actually goes back to 1978, when a federal energy project studied pond scum for nearly two decades. It examined 3,000 strains and concluded that algae with a high oil content and a taste for harsh living conditions just might help mankind kick its fossil fuel addiction. Ethanol and biofuel made from vegetable oils have lost traction largely because they take more energy to make than they produce. Some strains of algae are as much as 50 percent oil that can be converted into biodiesel or jet fuel. However, converting algae oil into biodiesel uses the same process that turns vegetable oils into biodiesel. The biggest challenge is cutting the cost of production. But the cost of producing algae oil is hard to pin down because nobody is running the process start to finish other than in a laboratory.

If the price of production can be reduced, the advantages of algae include the fact that it grows much faster and in less space than conventional energy crops. An acre of corn can produce about 20 gallons of oil per year compared with a possible 15,000 gallons of oil per acre of algae. And, an algae farm could be located almost anywhere. It would not require converting cropland from food production to energy production.

Imagine a world with no oil spills, no political posturing over our limited resources; a world where we simply rely on the earth and the sea. It makes sense to me. We’ll see what happens. For more information on algae as a source of fuel, check out this recent article in the Seattle times.