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Algae: fuel from CO2, O2 as waste, don't affect food prices

It’s a more affordable and efficient biofuel. They’re calling it “clean, green crude”. Algae production doesn’t affect food prices and it converts contaminating gases into fuel.

Many millennia ago, it was algae- and their photosynthesis- that helped make the earth’s environment hospitable to modern life. Now entrepreneurs and governments are betting that they can do it again. 

Tim Zenk, vice president at algae startup Sapphire Energy, explains how they’re using an ancient idea to create a more responsible biofuel.

“Crude oil is nothing but algae from 10 million years ago during a great algae bloom that got transported underground and today we call it crude oil. We take that process and speed it up by 10 million years and produce green crude.”

The most attractive biofuel

Currently, algae is arguably the biofuel source (bioethanol, biobutanol and biodiesel) creating the most interest: its mass production would not impact the price of food as does the cultivation of cereals and other plants; they can grow 20 to 30 times faster than food crops; and they can extract a greater energy performance from the same mass. 

Methods are being studied to use sealed growing tanks with large algae cultivations that could capture carbon dioxide and emit oxygen (see animation from The Guardian). It would be possible, for example, to situate algae plants next to contaminating industries allowing the organisms to feed off carbon-rich exhaust fumes thereby converting the harmful gases into a commodity for generating biofuels.

While algae biofuel would emit CO2 when burnt, since it would be equal to the amount of CO2 consumed by the algae during their growing phase, the fuel would be considered carbon neutral.

The cultivation of algae for the biofuels sector interests companies (in the U.S., Sapphire Energy, OriginOil, BioCentric Energy and PetroAlgae); public and private research centers (or a symbiosis of both models) and even government agencies.

The public bet on algae is growing: the British Government is financing, through its independent agency The Carbon Trust, the world’s largest algal biofuel project (with a 26 million pound- $11.4 million- budget and the objective that algal biofuels will be a commercial reality in 2020), Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package allocates 1.5 billion dollars to research on fossil fuel alternatives, and it is expected that at least a portion of this will be dedicated tobiofuels derived from algae.

Also private investors such as Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (who believes that algae form part of the solution to the energy and climate crisis) believe that algae are the ONLY biofuel capable of offering an alternative to fossil fuels. For that reason he is in step with the British government and has invested in several small businesses that are trying to produce fuel from algae at a competitive price.

Once a viable, affordable, and adequate formula for mass production of algal biofuel has been found, the resulting fuel could be used to propel all kinds of vehicles. The aeronautics industry is particularly interested in the technology.

An old acquaintance of research centers

As with any another technology from the past few decades aimed at offering a viable alternative to fossil fuels, back in the seventies- coinciding with the oil crisis of 1973-, the U.S. government financed a research program to create fuel from the cultivation of algae.

In 1996, the program was canceled: the Clinton Administration concluded that producing biodiesel from algae was too expensive and, therefore, unfeasible until oil prices rose to 40 dollars a barrel.

At the end of February 2009, the price for Brent crude was situated around 40 dollars and in 2008 it reached 147 dollars. Following the advice of the research program from this previous U.S. administration, algal biofuels should now be commercially viable.

The bet of the new U.S. Administration on renewable technologies may be that necessary impulse to help energy technologies convert mere prototypes into alternatives of traditional fuels.

When waste becomes food

William McDonough and Michael Braungart took from disciplines as different as applied chemistry and permaculture the necessary knowledge to develop their attractive thesis on industrial design: products should be able to be regenerated ad infinitum and not generate any waste; ideally, products can become, at the end of their life, a nutrient for other products.

The premise “cradle to cradle” (C2C) of converting the “waste” of a process or product into “food” for another product (eliminating any residue) can be applied to the production of biofuels with the cultivation of algae. This heterogeneous group of photosynthetic animals can produce organic matter for biofuels while being fed sunlight, carbon dioxide, other contaminating gases and organic waste, septic residues from animals (the polluting purines) and humans (when not properly treaties, they constitute a dangerous source of contamination and epidemics).

Of the 1.5 billion dollars that the Obama Administration will put toward renewable energies, “a small allocation [of funds] for innovative concepts for beneficial CO2 reuse”, qualifies the rescue plan.

As opposed to carbon capture projects, research with algae aims to find methods that can convert CO2 into the necessary food to generate energy: as if trying to emulate the “cradle to cradle” concept, waste would become food. It’s tough to refute an economically viable method to fight against greenhouse gases while generating clean energy and oxygen as waste.

The company Ternion Bio, for example, claims to have developed a cost-effective bioreactor process to capture CO2 from power plants or industrial sites. The gases could be subsequently used to grow algae, which would become biofuel.

The process would eliminate polluting gases and would generate oxygen and biofuels. All from the use of gases that cause climate change.

With projects like that of Ternion Bio ready to be exploited and businesses’ and governments’ need to fight emissions, increasingly more investors are following the example of Vinod Khosla and, despite the international economic crisis, they are asking if algae can save the world “again” (as Reuters asks in their suggestive title). 

Algae have numerous attributes especially useful for the development of biofuel:

  • Using terrestrial cultivations to produce vegetable fuel is an activity falling under increasing scrutiny for its environmental consequences (destruction of forests, traditional crops, and habitats; promotion of monoculture), economic (increase in the price of basic cereal crops) and social (food crisis in the poorest countries). Algae, on the contrary, grow in uninhabited places and are not destined for mass consumption.
  • Various types of algae can grow from 20 to 30 times faster than traditional crops.
  • It is scientifically viable -and relatively as simple as inexpensive- to identify what strains of algae will produce the most oil, capable of absorbing at the same time the greater amount of CO2.
  • The need to use a CO2 source for nutrition has raised interest from industrial factories anxious to provide algae with their exhaust rich in carbon dioxide.

Nevertheless, and despite the clear advantage in the use of algae, Carole Llewellyn, a marine chemistry expert from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (United Kingdom), believes that various obstacles need to be overcome before biofuels from algae will become a commercial reality.

Steve Skill, a biochemist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, believes that the race has begun to find viable methods to convert algae into vegetable oil that then can become biodiesel, jet fuel and plastic products.

Skill predicts that this new industry, fitting nicely within the booming new sector for clean technologies, will cultivate algae in sufficient quantities for commercial oil production within the decade.

Several companies are working on systems to create biofues from algae (in the U.S.: Solazyme, Sapphire Energy, Blue Marble Energy, OriginOil, BioCentric Energy and PetroAlgae; the Brazilian MPX Energy; and the Spanish BFS Biofuel Systems), totally several dozen. Five years ago, only a handful of such businesses existed.

  • Some companies are perfecting potentially disruptive techniques of cultivating algae and sustainable fuel production: while Solazyme, for example, cultivates algae in the dark and feeds them with sugar, Blue Marble Energy takes advantage of naturally occurring, and harmful, algae blooms.
  • Nevertheless, the great majority of firms use the technology called bioreactors (containers or systems that maintain a biologically active environment). There are especially promising bioreactors, like the photobioreactor developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While the companies developing alternative techniques to bioreactors position themselves, the group of firms that believe that these containers are the best way to create algal biofuel are trying to reduce production costs to differentiate themselves from the growing competence.

The company Solix Biofuels claims, meanwhile, to have found the secret formula that the entire sector is seeking: how to reduce the production costs of biofuels from algae by 90-95%.

The company is setting up a fuel production plant in Durango, Colorado. Here will be housed the firm’s bioreactors, whose design favors the passive circulation of CO2 in such a way that there won’t be a need for any other mechanism to feed the algae. It would reduce costs dramatically.

Other businesses, like California’s Amyris, are trying to attract the attention of media and investors by assuring that their technology is a lot more convenient and sustainable than that of biodiesel, ethanol or any gas.

Where is the commercial offering?

There still doesn’t exist a single center or company that can produce biofuels from algae in industrial quantities and at a price that can compete with the fuels used in cars and airplanes.

And there are airlines showing interest in adapting their fleets of airplanes for biofuel use. In January of 2009, both Continental and Japan Airlines flew test flights using biofuels composed of an algae oil blend.

Besides, the research department affiliated with the U.S. Army DARPA has hired the firm Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to develop fuel for airplanes from algae.

The American air force wants its entire fleet to be ready by 2011 to fly on alternative fuels, a 50-50 mix of synthetic and petroleum-based fuels.

The European aeronautics firms Airbus and Honeywell (along with JetBlue Airways and International Aero Engines) have also announced their own project to supply a third of the fuel required by the aviation industry in the form of biofuel composed from vegetable biomass and algae. Though the project would not reduce the longterm emissions of airlines, explains Keith Johnson in the Wall Street Journal, if the growth in global flights is maintained.

Biofuels created from algae and other vegetable matter, as well as more efficient motors, are two of the prescriptions that could allow aviation to cut its growing carbon footprint.

Similarly, legislation can help the industry become aware of their problem more quickly: the European Union, through the Environment Commission, is planning to include aviation inside the European system of emissions trading beginning in 2012.

The production of biofuels from algae has a promising future, as vouched for by the legendary investor of venture capital Vinod Khosla, the U.S. governments and the United Kingdom and scores of businesses in North America, Europe or Latin America.

Any process that promises to consume huge quantities of CO2, to produce oxygen as waste and to convert the resulting product into a fuel capable of replacing petroleum is more than welcome. All this without altering the price of food, nor requiring the use of food crops.