Algae for biofuels?


in Economics, Geek stuff, Science, The environment, Travel

Bicycle gears

One possible feedstock for biofuel production is algae, which could be grown and processed in various ways, producing transportation fuels. Some people seem to think this is the most plausible path to affordable non-fossil transportation fuels. Others think various land-based plants and processes (cellulosic ethanol, jatropha, etc) are more viable. Another big question is how cheap biofuels could ever become. Biofuels at $100 per barrel probably wouldn’t mean the end of air travel, private cars fueled by liquid hydrocarbons, etc. Biofuels at $1,000 a barrel would push us a lot father away from their mainstream use.

I don’t know enough to decide one way or the other, though it certainly doesn’t seem like anyone is making cheap and functional biofuels from algae right now.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 7, 2009 at 9:44 am

Previous posts and comments relating to algae and biofuels:

“I think its disingenuous to lump all bio-fuels together. I think algae-based bio-diesel is where its at in the medium term (though diesel in general is not as good in our cold climate), however food-based ethanol is wrong on many different levels.”

GreenFuel Bites the Dust

Book Review: Green Algae Strategy

An algae or even a waste-oil based system ends up with many benefits, not costs. For example, a sugarcane biofuel that is on the left side of your chart would require 46-57 percent of existing US crop land to meet just half of the current US fuel demand.”

Honeywell & Airbus To Turn Algae Into Jet Fuel

“It has saved fuel by cutting the weight of aircraft – removing floor mats, redundant tools, loading thick manuals on to laptops, and using lighter paint – and within seven years plans to fly them on a 50/50 blend of ordinary fuel and biofuel, probably made from algae.

“There’s been hope that one could remove some of the excess carbon dioxide – put it back where it came from, in a sense, because the petroleum we’re burning was originally made by the algae. But our results show this is going to be a small amount, almost negligible.”

“But the most amazing thing is that biodiesel can be produced from algae that have been used to reduce carbon emissions from the exhaust of power plants, in yields as high as 15,000 gallons per acre.”

“However, given that cars are going electric, algae-grown biofuels are an alternative for air transport, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) can fulfil almost any other use we presently have for oil, global demand for Tar Sands bitumen would probably drop anyway if its full price of emissions control and environmental damage were figured in. So there may be no need for such a ban.”

“A good solar idea for a change. Algae based petroleum for 50$ US a barrel.”

“One of cellulosic biofuels — using one-sixth of the world’s cropland (or less land if yields significantly increase or algae-to-biofuels proves commercial at large scale).”

Milan June 7, 2009 at 9:52 am

According to Robert Rapier: “GreenFuel was the first high profile algal concern to go under, but they won’t be the last. I predict that none of them will be standing in just a few short years. Growing algae is trivial and can be done in water, and there is the allure. Turning into biodiesel is not technically very difficult. Doing it all economically is next to impossible. I have had one very prominent algae expert tell me that it will be at least 15 years before there are serious prospects for commercial viability – and that will require multiple large technical breakthroughs.”

. June 7, 2009 at 12:39 pm

“the Energy Department estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles, which is a few thousand miles larger than Maryland.”

R.K. June 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Paradoxically, high energy prices usually mean high biofuel prices, given all the effort required to grow, collect, and process them.

Biofuels might keep our ships, planes, and land vehicles running beyond fossil fuels, but they are unlikely to do so cheaply, or even affordably for most people.

Tristan June 7, 2009 at 5:14 pm

“Paradoxically, high energy prices usually mean high biofuel prices, given all the effort required to grow, collect, and process them.”

This is at best half true, true only on a short time span. If energy prices remain low, there is no incentive to develop alternative fuels. If they get high, then those alternative fuels are more expensive to produce, but for exactly that reason, potentially more profitable. So, in the long run, high energy prices means at least the possibility of low energy prices because of investment leading to economies of scale.

I don’t think its possible to say that biofuels are unlikely or likely to provide a complete alternative to petrol. The investment required for a complete switch over, as estimated by the ministry of energy, is not beyond the realm of feasibility.

Milan June 7, 2009 at 5:59 pm

To produce and process biofuels, you will definitely need energy inputs. In particular, gassification to produce synthetic diesel requires a lot of energy and capital per barrel of output.

In a world where all those inputs are from renewables, they will probably be much more expensive. I don’t think a ‘complete switch over’ is even possible, for most economies. There just isn’t enough land to grow the feedstocks. See: Renewables, land, and trade-offs

Fossil fuels have given civilization a huge easy energy spurt that may never be possible to make up from renewable sources. Indeed, it is quite plausible that we are using more energy overall (and per person) now than we will be for several hundred years hence.

Milan June 7, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Energy return on investment is a key issue here. It used to be that you could drill a hole in the ground in Kuwait and get back 100 times the energy you put in. With the oil sands, you might get back three or four times what you put in. Biofuels will probably be even worse; certainly, those that exist now mostly are (Brazilian ethanol does best – largely because it is distilled using energy from sugarcane waste) Indeed, you are likely to have to pay a big energy premium to get your fuel in a dense, liquid form – especially one that doesn’t gel up at the temperatues aircraft face.

To get cheap biofuels in a world where fossil fuels are expensive, you need to be able to meet current demand. You need to do so by growing enough biomass to produce the equivalent of millions of barrels per day of oil. You need to grow and process all of that using either expensive fossil fuel energy, or some sort of renewable energy. For now, even with energy prices above historical levels, the renewable option remains more expensive (externalities aside).

In short, I think it is unlikely that we will end up with cheap biofuels, regardless of the price of fossil fuels, and I think they are even less likely to be cheap when oil is expensive.

Tristan June 7, 2009 at 10:04 pm

What energy inputs are required to turn algae into biofuel? If algae has a net positive energy revenue at all it is promising, since the land it takes up doesn’t have a food production opportunity cost, and since it can make use of cheap lousy water. Compared to growing corn or soy, which requires the use of otherwise valuable land, and water, it really does seem a million times better.

Tristan June 7, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Considering the federal subsidies of oil, which lately have been massive military expenditures to ensure security of supply, it could make financial sense to hugely subsidize the production of algae based biofuels. However, only if the contracts can all be bid on only by Halliburton.

Milan June 7, 2009 at 10:12 pm

As I understand it, the favoured approach for turning algae into liquid fuel is the following:

Each step requires energy. While it is possible that you could run the whole thing using chemical energy from photosynthesis, there certainly isn’t anyone doing that profitably with algae now.

Milan June 7, 2009 at 10:15 pm

The non-Fischer Tropsch options for turning biomass into synthetic fuel are flash pyrolysis and catalytic depolymerization. As I understand it, there are companies trying to use both approaches, with different feedstocks.

. June 7, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Algae fuel
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

. June 7, 2009 at 10:23 pm

The Prospects for Algal Biodiesel Dim

As I noted in my earlier essay More Reality Checks for Algal Biodiesel, I initially had high hopes for the idea that we might make significant amounts of biodiesel from algae. A few years ago I read Michael Briggs’ essay Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae and thought he put together a compelling case that algae could power our transportation system. I even exchanged a few e-mails with him at one point in order to get a better perspective on his views.

Ah, but the devil is always in the details. And as I dug into the details, my hopes began to fade. I had conversations with researchers who let me know what some of the problems were, and some were potential show-stoppers. Krassen Dimitrov’s analysis of Greenfuel Technologies and their algae claims strongly suggested that photobioreactors (PBRs), as shown in the slide below from my ASPO presentation last year (Biofuels: Facts and Fallacies), have no future.

Why? Because costs are about two orders of magnitude too high. More importantly, costs are tied to energy. That means that economic feasibility won’t come about if oil prices rise by one or two orders of magnitude. This is a show-stopper for the following reason. The amount of solar insolation falling on a square meter of land is known. The cost to build a square meter of PBRs is known. If, for example, a square meter of land might be expected to produce one gallon of algal biodiesel based on the sunlight falling on the surface, but the cost to build a square meter of PBR is $100, you have a problem. You can’t afford to spend $100 of capital to produce 1 gallon of biodiesel per year. (This is the thrust of Krassen’s analysis).

Milan June 7, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Another way to think about it is in terms of land.

In temperate latitudes, you have about 100 watts of harvestable sunlight per square metre. Plants, however, are inefficient at turning sunlight into carbohydrates. For energy crops, efficiency is apparently about 0.5 watts per square metre. Over a year, that is about 4380 watt-hours per metre, turning sunlight into carbohydrates. Even with a 100% efficient biomass-to-fuel process, that’s the upper bound.

Apparently, a barrel of oil has about 6.1 gigajoules (GJ) of energy in it. This site says that one gigajoule is akin to 278 kWh. Getting 6.1 gigajoules thus requires something like 1696 kWh of energy – 1,696,000 watt-hours, equivalent to 387 square metres of sun-lit area. That’s 0.000387 square kilometres per barrel per year, with my extremely generous assumptions.

Every year, the United States imports about 4.8 billion barrels of oil (13.15 million barrels per day). Covert that to space (assuming a perfect plant-to-fuel conversion process) and you get a land area of about 1,857,000 square kilometres: about 19.1% of the landmass of the United States. Possible, perhaps, but a massive undertaking. We are also ignoring what I understand to be the two biggest hurdles: the energy requirements of biomass-to-fuel conversion, and the capital costs of the equipment you do it with.

. June 7, 2009 at 10:56 pm

A Sober Look at Biofuels From Algae
Large-scale algae-to-biodiesel production is getting tantalizingly close to reality. However, some highly touted production pathways may not be all they are cracked up to be.
By Martin Tampier

“The first problem with photobioreactors is their high capital cost. Assuming major economies of scale, the authors used costs of $1.5 million per hectare. Yet, this was thought to be too low by a factor of two or three by industry experts consulted for this work. These capital costs alone will result in per-liter costs of $7 to $15 for oil made from algae, depending on available sunlight and the specific oil yield of a given algae species. This calculation already includes revenues from selling byproducts, such as algae cake, for ethanol production or as animal feed. Since this cost is higher than current diesel pricing, the article could end right here.

There are, however, additional costs in photobioreactor algae production. Current experience with photobioreactors shows that anywhere from one to 15 people per hectare are necessary to operate such facilities. Even assuming as little as one employee per hectare still results in per-liter labor costs of $1.50 to $3 in industrialized countries. Finally, operational costs for fertilizer, electricity, maintenance, etc., will add another $3 to $6 per liter.”

. June 7, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Could pond scum provide the fuel of the future?
By David Biello in 60-Second Science Blog

Is Algae the Biofuel of the Future?
The tiny plants could provide renewable oil but industry wants a helping hand from government

By Katie Howell

There are some signs that the algae-based fuel industry might be ready to bloom.

One of the nascent industry’s biggest and most well-heeled players, Sapphire Energy, announced last week that it would be producing 1 million gallons of diesel and jet fuel a year by 2011, double its initial estimates.

The La Jolla, Calif.-based company – with big-name backers like Bill Gates and the Rockefeller family – says it will be producing more than 100 million gallons a year by 2018 and 1 billion gallons a year by 2020 – enough to meet almost 3 percent of the U.S. renewable fuel standard (RFS) of 36 billion gallons.

Milan June 7, 2009 at 11:03 pm

it could make financial sense to hugely subsidize the production of algae based biofuels.

1) Only if such fuels prove to be a reasonable energy return on investment

2) Only if such fuels provide a reasonable return on capital investment

3) Only if there are no better options out there for powering transportation

4) Only if such ‘huge subsidies’ don’t encourage wasteful use, or the kind of strong negative side-effects resulting from corn ethanol

Tristan June 7, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Thinking the subsidy needs to meet this criteria… does the war in Iraq meet it? The worldwide investment to protect foreign oil interests isn’t paid for by investors. So, why should a comparable amount of risk concerning algae oil production? Why is subsidizing oil in the ground subject to a less stringent calculation than a co2 neutral project?

Milan June 8, 2009 at 12:00 pm

As I said to Neal previously, the Iraq war really shouldn’t be the bar by which we judge public policy. By comparison, virtually any investment looks good.

As of now, there don’t seem to be any companies produding biofuel from algae commercially. While elements of it are appealing, it may just not be an approach that can be made to work technologically.

Rather than trying to guess which approaches will work and which will not, it makes more sense to implement policies that promote whatever technology is effectively both climatically and economically, including carbon pricing, support for basic research, requirements that the carbon emissions per unit of fuel fall, etc.

Milan June 8, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Also, algae biofuel is only CO2 neutral if all the energy inputs are CO2 neutral. That includes making and operating whatever system stores the algae, collecting it, drying it, processing it, and distributing the fuel.

. June 8, 2009 at 1:37 pm
Milan June 11, 2009 at 3:18 pm

For the sake of comparison, concentrating solar facilities in relatively sunny places like Arizona, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia can produce about 15 watts per square metre. That’s thirty times more fuel for electric vehicles than you could get with a 0.5 W/m^2 crop and perfect crop-to-fuel conversion.

. June 22, 2009 at 10:16 am

Monday, June 15, 2009
Response to Green Algae Strategy Review

I have received a response from Mark Edwards, auther of Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel. I reviewed the book here recently, and as I indicated in the conclusion of the review I would gladly post any of Mark’s comments. So, here they are in full. I have added clarifications, such as to indicate when Mark is quoting me [e.g., RR quote]. I have otherwise tried to keep the formatting consistent with what Mark sent me. No further response from me.

. June 30, 2009 at 1:11 pm

What about algae?

Algae are just plants, so everything I’ve said so far applies to algae. Slimy underwater plants are no more efficient at photosynthesis than their terrestrial cousins. But there is one trick that I haven’t discussed, which is standard practice in the algae-to-biodiesel community: they grow their algae in water heavily enriched with carbon dioxide, which might be collected from power stations or other industrial facilities. It takes much less effort for plants to photosynthesize if the carbon dioxide has already been concentrated for them. In a sunny spot in America, in ponds fed with concentrated CO2 (concentrated to 10%), Ron Putt of Auburn University says that algae can grow at 30 g per square metre per day, producing 0.01 litres of biodiesel per square metre per day. This corresponds to a power per unit pond area of 4 W/m^2 – similar to the Bavaria photovoltaic farm. If you wanted to drive a typical car (doing 12 km per litre) a distance of 50 km per day, then you’d need 420 square metres of algae-ponds just to power your car; for comparison, the area of the UK per person is 4000 square metres, of which 69 m^2 is water (figure 6.8). Please don’t forget that it’s essential to feed these ponds with concentrated carbon dioxide. So this technology would be limited both by land area – how much of the UK we could turn into algal ponds – and by the availability of concentrated CO2, the capture of which would have an energy cost (a topic discussed in Chapters 23 and 31). Let’s check the limit imposed by the concentrated CO2. To grow 30 g of algae per m^2 per day would require at least 60 g of CO2 per m^2 per day (because the CO2 molecule has more mass per carbon atom than the molecules in algae). If all the CO2 from all UK power stations were captured (roughly 2 1⁄2 tons per year per person), it could service 230 square metres per person of the algal ponds described above – roughly 6% of the country. This area would deliver biodiesel with a power of 24 kWh per day per person, assuming that the numbers for sunny America apply here. A plausible vision? Perhaps on one tenth of that scale? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

. July 16, 2009 at 11:15 am

ExxonMobil invests in algae biofuel project

Posted 5:10 PM on 14 Jul 2009
by Agence France-Presse

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2009 (AFP) – Oil giant ExxonMobil announced an alliance Tuesday with biotech firm Synthetic Genomics to make a new biofuel from photosynthetic algae.

The biggest U.S. energy firm said it was partnering with the firm headed by Craig Venter, a researcher who founded Human Genome Sciences and Celera Genomics and has worked on projects to sequence the genomes of humans, fruit flies, and other organisms.

ExxonMobil said it expects to spend more than $600 million if certain milestones are reached to produce the fuel, which does not contribute to greenhouse emissions.

. July 29, 2009 at 4:38 pm

ENERGY: ALGENOL | Business | Algae: The next biofuel bet
Algae: The next biofuel bet

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on pond scum as a future source of renewable energy
Jul 25, 2009 04:30 AM

Tyler Hamilton
Energy Reporter

Paul Woods was 22 and studying genetics at the University of Western Ontario when he realized that under certain conditions some species of algae naturally produce small quantities of ethanol.

It was 1984, oil prices appeared to be heading higher, and Woods wondered whether pond scum could be genetically engineered to produce large volumes of the renewable fuel as an alternative to gasoline. The Toronto-born biology student needed some expert advice, so he tracked down plant biologist John Coleman at the University of Toronto and laid out his wish list.

“He basically walked into my lab and asked, `Do you think this is a possibility?’ ” recalls Coleman, a senior professor in the university’s department of cell and systems biology. “I sat down, thought about it for a little while, and we started coming up with more ideas.”

Twenty-five years later, Woods, now 47, is founder and chief executive of Florida-based Algenol Biofuels and Coleman is its chief scientific officer. No longer are they just mucking around in the lab. Algenol announced last month a partnership with chemical powerhouse Dow Chemical to build and operate a demonstration algae-to-ethanol plant at one of Dow’s manufacturing sites in Texas.

Algae, it appears, are the new green in the quest for a sustainable biofuel that can run cars, put airplanes in the sky and be made into shopping bags. Dozens of start-ups have sprung out of universities, government labs and corporate R&D divisions, all hoping to break the world’s addiction to oil in a way that’s economical and doesn’t compete against food production. More significantly, corporate titans – Dow Chemical just one among them – are entering the game.

. August 3, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Other firms are working on ways to break up the cells of oil-rich algae to get at the oil. Dr Venter, however, has succeeded in engineering a secretion pathway from another organism into experimental algae. These algae now release their oil, which floats to the surface of the culture vessel. That is why he refers to the process as biomanufacturing. It is not farming, he reckons, because the algae themselves are never harvested (though it may be necessary to cull them if they become too abundant).

The next trick, which Exxon’s money will help pay for, is to tweak the biochemical pathway that makes the algal oil (which is known, technically, as a triglyceride, and has oxygen atoms in it as well as carbon and hydrogen) so that the oxygen-containing parts of the molecules are snipped off and a pure hydrocarbon is left. After that, it will be a question of looking through the thousands of species of algae around to see which would make the best “platform” for the new technology. The ideal species will be able to stand up to intense illumination (more light means faster photosynthesis) and heat (for the high levels of sunlight required will also warm things up). It will also need to be resistant to viruses, which will otherwise be a big threat to such a concentrated population of identical organisms. And if no suitable species exists, then Synthetic Genomics’s researchers will take the desirable characteristics from several and create what is, in effect, a new one.

Milan August 22, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Some discussion of algae-based biofuels cropped up on this other thread.

. August 24, 2009 at 10:20 am

Sunday, August 23, 2009
Another Journalist Fails Due Diligence 101

I have had a number of people ask me about the E-Fuel MicroFueler, so at one point I did a bit of investigating. It is essentially a small still, but apparently has a fermentation capability if the feedstock contains sugar. However, they stress that it works best with wastes that contain alcohols (which a still would simply clean up) and they say in their FAQ that “under most circumstances consumers will contract with their dealer to service the MicroFueler and maintain a regular delivery and supply of feedstock.” What that means to me is that they will send you spoiled beer or wine, and the person who failed Economics 101 and bought one of these can then use electricity to turn the feedstock into alcohol. They can then tell those Arabs that they don’t need their stinking oil.

But today, a journalist who has absolutely no business writing about something like this wrote a very misleading story on the unit. And the reason the story is so misleading is that the journalist was completely out of her element and couldn’t tell how badly she was being duped.

So, let’s get this straight. A brewing company has a bunch of liquid waste that contains alcohol. They aren’t going to clean up this waste themselves and recover the alcohol. Instead, they are going to put it in a tanker truck and haul that waste to people’s houses and dump it in their MicroFuelers. The owner of the MicroFueler, having paid $10K to buy one of these things, is now going to pay for the electricity and then pay another $2 a gallon for the finished product. They are then going to put it into their vehicle, hopefully in proportions that don’t ruin their cars. Wow.

. September 9, 2009 at 11:23 am

Algal Biofuel

I classified this as a pretender based on the fact that technological improvements are needed in order to make algal biofuel economical – yet the hype over algae is mind-boggling. We don’t even know if it will work at scale, and yet it is going to be the solution to all our problems? Following my previous essay, I had a discussion with someone involved in testing fuels for the U.S. military. They are optimistic about the future of fuel from algae, but admitted that they were only able to secure algal fuel for testing at the cost of $100/gal! How likely is it that there will be a more than 20-fold decrease in production costs?

Having said that, there are three situations in which I think algae can work. Two of these are niches. The first is a situation in which the oil is produced as a by-product. Algae has a great number of uses in consumer products, and oil can be produced as a by-product of those consumer products. As a hypothetical, assume that algae can be engineered to produce a valuable pharmaceutical. This is certainly not science fiction; the first commercial usage of genetic engineering was to design bacteria to produce human insulin. Imagine instead algae, and oil that is removed during processing. The costs are largely born by the more valuable primary product. The problem of course is that this approach isn’t scalable. Imagine again that something like insulin production is the primary role of the algae. If you tried to scale that up to a significant fraction of our fuel usage, you will have thoroughly saturated the market for the insulin. But perhaps if we can pair up a number of primary products with oil production, algae can make a contribution to our fuel supply.

The second situation is similar. If algae production is one step in an integrated energy complex, it could work. For instance, I was recently asked to comment on just such an approach by Desert Biofuels, a company in Arizona. Without endorsing their specific approach, this sort of approach may work. (Actually their approach is quite complex and has unique technical risks). But algae can be effective at cleaning up waste water. Imagine algal-cleanup as one step of an integrated complex, and the costs go down substantially.

The only scalable approach I can see is for algae to be engineered to excrete their oil in situ. What drives the cost of algae up so much are the difficulties of collecting the algae, separating from water, and then separating the oil from the algae. (Often overlooked is that the oil must be further processed to biodiesel or green diesel). Now imagine a pond of algae in which the oil “leaks” out while the algae grow. The process of collecting the oil would be dramatically simplified. A caveat of course is that engineered algae tend to get out-competed by native strains. The bigger caveat is that this technology doesn’t exist, but companies are working on it.

The wild card out there is the Solazyme approach. Think sugarcane ethanol, except instead of yeast producing ethanol you have algae producing oil. The approach is interesting – which is why I mention it – and gets away from many of the problems inherent in trying to produce fuel from algae. Is it more efficient than sugarcane ethanol? I think it’s too early to tell. But one poster at The Oil Drum indicated that during a Q&A with a Solazyme representative, he couldn’t come close to a believable answer regarding scale-up costs. So while I think this one bears watching, it is far too early to suggest that this will pan out.

For a balanced overview of fuel from algae, see Biotech’s green gold?

. September 9, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Nature Biotechnology 27, 15 – 18 (2009)

Biotech’s green gold?

Algae have long been touted as a rich and ubiquitous source of renewable fuel but thus far have failed to be economically competitive with other sources of energy. Could new advances change that? Emily Waltz investigates.

When the UK’s Carbon Trust last year set out to fund algal biofuels research, organizers quickly met with a mélange of overzealous claims coming from the industry. Companies were projecting biofuel yields ten times what is theoretically possible and proposing techniques that are not now and may never be economical. A year later, after wading through the claims and gathering opinions from a network of more than 300 experts, the agency announced on October 23 the creation of the Algae Biofuel Challenge, a £16 ($24) million fund that will support the development and large-scale production of algal oil.

. September 9, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Table 1. Potential oil yields per acre per year

Crop – Gallons of oil/acre/year
Soybeans – 43
Sunflower – 86
Canola – 171
Jatrjopha – 214
Palm oil – 641
Microalgae – up to 6,000 (with future technology)

Milan September 9, 2009 at 12:44 pm

That Nature article is a very good overview. It reinforces the view that there is probably a role for algae as a feedstock for biofuels, but that it won’t be as cheap or easy as many startups are claiming.

. October 11, 2009 at 7:56 pm

Commercial Fuel From Algae Still Years Away

By Soulskill on it’s-not-easy-being-green

chrnb sends along this quote from a report at Reuters: “Filling your vehicle’s tank with fuel made from algae is still as much as a decade away, as the emerging industry faces a series of hurdles to find an economical way to make the biofuel commercially. Estimates on a timeline for a commercial product, and profits, vary from two to 10 years or more. Executives and industry players who gathered at the Algae Biomass Summit this week in San Diego said they need to push for breakthroughs along the entire chain — from identifying the best organisms to developing efficient harvesting methods. … So far on the list: finding the right strain of algae among thousands of species that will produce high yields; designing systems where the desired algae can multiply and other species don’t invade and disrupt the process; and extracting its oils without degrading other parts of the algae that can be made into side products and sold as well.”

. November 2, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Interview With an Algae CEO
By Robert Rapier

RR: Talk about some of the challenges of growing algae.

CEO: The list is exhaustive. It takes a lot of water. It takes a lot of electricity. Solar penetration is only about an inch into the water, so we really have to keep the ponds mixed well. One thing people never mention is the phosphorous requirement. Phosphorous is a limited resource, but a critical one for the algal growth. If you are trying to make oil, then you have to stress the algae and push it into a lipid production mode. But that causes growth rates to stall. If you engineer algae for higher oil production rates, they can’t out-compete the native species in the ponds.

RR: What about photobioreactors? Some people envision them as a solution to some of the problems (evaporation, contamination) of the open pond system.

CEO: They are ungodly expensive relative to how much algae they can produce.

RR: So how do you foresee the future of algal fuels?

CEO: There is no future. Look, some of these guys are out there committing fraud with their yield claims. Nobody is making fuel except for small amounts in the lab. I just don’t see how anyone will ever make cost-competitive fuel from algae.

RR: So you see the main barrier to commercialization of algal fuel as cost?

CEO: Yes, but it is important to note why the cost is high. I don’t see much hope of dramatically cutting those costs. For algae that has other uses – like in the nutraceutical market – the economics are sometimes there because the product is much more valuable. I can make 4-5 times as much revenue per acre growing algae for the supplements market, and at a lower cost than it would take to make fuel.

. November 4, 2009 at 4:51 pm

K-State engineers strive to make algae oil production more feasible

Two Kansas State University engineers are assessing systematic production methods that could make the costs of algae oil production more reasonable, helping move the U.S. from fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy replacements. The idea by K-State’s Wenqiao “Wayne” Yuan and Zhijian “Z.J.” Pei is to grow algae in the ocean on very large, supporting platforms. The National Science Foundation awarded them a $98,560 Small Grant for Exploratory Research in 2009 for their work.

Compared to soybeans that produce 50 gallons of oil an acre a year, some algae can average 6,000 gallons — but it’s not cheap to produce. Current algae growing methods use ponds and bioreactor columns, and algae float around suspended in water. Harvesting such a moving target systematically requires using very costly inputs like centrifuges and electricity. Even with these best technologies for algae growth and production, the end product biodiesel is expensive at about $56 a gallon.

Yuan, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at K-State, thinks it will be five to 10 years scientists before understand the fundamentals of large-scale algae production sufficiently that cost can be reduced to the target of about $5 a gallon.

. December 10, 2009 at 10:13 am

Self-Destructing Bacteria Create Better Biofuels

“Researchers at Arizona State University have genetically engineered cyanobacteria to dissolve from the inside out, making it easy to access the high-energy fats and biofuel byproducts located within. To do this they combined the bacteria’s genes with genes from the bacteriaphage — a so-called ‘mortal enemy’ of bacteria that cause it to explode. Cyanobacteria have a higher yield potential than most biofuels currently being used, and this new strain eliminates the need for costly and energy intensive processing steps.”

. February 19, 2010 at 2:47 pm

UVa engineers find significant environmental impacts with algae-based biofuel

With many companies investing heavily in algae-based biofuels, researchers from the University of Virginia’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have found there are significant environmental hurdles to overcome before fuel production ramps up. They propose using wastewater as a solution to some of these challenges.

These findings come after ExxonMobil invested $600 million last summer and the U.S. Department of Energy announced last week that it is awarding $78 million in stimulus money for research and development of the biofuel.

The U.Va. research, just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, demonstrates that algae production consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn.

. May 11, 2010 at 11:39 am

Some Random Notes of Algal Fuels

By Robert Rapier on R-Squared Energy Blog

1. The present cost of algae production from open ponds is too high to make fuel production economically viable.

2. Photobioreactors (PBRs) are too expensive.

3. The energy inputs into the algae production process are very high.

4. Some algae don’t need sunlight, and can produce oil in a fermentor.

5. Don’t believe the cited per acre yields that some proponents claim.

. July 26, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Exploring Algae as Fuel

“The goal is nothing less than to create superalgae, highly efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils that can be sent to a refinery and made into diesel or jet fuel.

“We’ve probably engineered over 4,000 strains,” said Mike Mendez, a co-founder and vice president for technology at Sapphire Energy, the owner of the laboratory. “My whole goal here at Sapphire is to domesticate algae, to make it a crop.”

Dozens of companies, as well as many academic laboratories, are pursuing the same goal — to produce algae as a source of, literally, green energy. And many of them are using genetic engineering or other biological techniques, like chemically induced mutations, to improve how algae functions.

Genetically engineered algae, whether in open ponds or enclosed bioreactors, are likely to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which now regulates genetically engineered microbes under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Still, there has been at least one case in which genetically modified algae seem to have fallen between the regulatory cracks. When Mera Pharmaceuticals, which is based in Hawaii, wanted to test the feasibility of producing human pharmaceuticals in genetically engineered algae in 2005, none of the three federal agencies that regulate the various areas of biotechnology — E.P.A., the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department — claimed jurisdiction.

Steven G. Chalk, acting deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy at the Energy Department, said any federally financed project, like Sapphire’s New Mexico demonstration, would have to undergo an environmental assessment. But risks would be assessed case by case, he said, not for all conceivable genetically modified algae. “

. October 5, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Solazyme, another firm based in California, is also focusing on renewable diesel and jet fuels, in its case derived from algae. Microscopic algae in open-air ponds can use natural sunlight and atmospheric or industrial-waste carbon dioxide to produce oils. But harvesting the fuel, which is present in only very small proportions, is expensive and difficult. Solazyme instead grows algae in sealed fermenting vessels with sugar as an energy source. The US Navy has used tens of thousands of litres of its algal fuels in exercises, and Propel, an American chain of filling stations, recently became the first to offer algal diesel. But although its technology clearly works, Solazyme remains cagey about the economics. A 110m-litre algae plant in Brazil, due to be up and running by the end of the year, may clarify Solazyme’s commercial potential.

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