10 July 2011

Will Micro-Algae Become a Disruptive Technology?

Just as corn and peanuts stunned the world decades ago with their then-newly discovered multi-beneficial uses and applications, Texas AgriLife Research scientists in Corpus Christi think microalgae holds even more promise.

...There are an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 species of microalgae, microscopic algae that thrive in freshwater and marine systems, Fernandez said.

Of all those species, only 35,000 species have been described, he said. _SD
Carlos Fernandez Texas AgriLife Research Lab
Micro-algae can be prolific sources of biomass and lipids -- both of which are prime feedstocks for biofuels production. But algae are already grown and used profitably for a wide range of commercial products(Wikipedia). The research described below involves both basic and applied research for micro-algae.
"We're only starting to scratch the surface of discovering the natural secrets of microalgae and their many potential uses and benefits," he said. "But already it's obvious that farmers will one day soon be growing microalgae on marginal land that won't compete with fertile farmland. They won't even compete for fresh water to grow."

To understand how best to grow it, Fernandez constructed a microalgae physiology laboratory to study how it's affected by temperature, salinity, nutrients, light levels and carbon dioxide.

"We have four bioreactors in which we grow microalgae to determine the basic physiological responses that affect its growth," he said. "We will then integrate these responses into a simulator model, a tool we can use in the management of larger, outdoor systems."

In this study, different strains of microalgae will be evaluated for their capacity to produce large amounts of lipids, or fats, that can then be converted to produce and refine diesel and other biofuels, Fernandez said.

"Along with that, after extracting the lipids from the biomass of microalgae, there is a residue that we are going to analyze for its quality for use as feed for animals, including fish, shrimp or cattle."

Eventually, studies will evaluate the possibility of using the residue as a soil fertilizer.

"There are lots of other potential uses for the residue, but for now our focus is on feed and fertilizer," he said. _SD

If algae are grown in bioreactors, they will likely be oriented vertically -- which will act as an "area multiplier." In other words, far more algae can be grown "per acre" using vertical bioreactors than using horizontal ponds and raceways. The challenge for bioreactors involves using cheap materials which are durable and efficient.

Ponds and raceways can be built on non-productive lands, using brackish, salt, or waste water -- so as not to interfere with either food supplies or potable water supplies. In fact, algae can even purify wastewater to make it drinkable.

Algae can be prolific producers of fuels, foods (for humans), feeds (for animals), fertiliser for soils, cosmetics, chemical feedstocks, nutrient supplements, and many more products and precursors only now being discovered.

It is true that at this point in time, micro-algae cannot produce a biofuel which is price competitive with petro-fuels. But it would be wrong to make future predictions based upon current technologies. Companies which find early profitable niche uses for micro-algae are apt to expand into ever newer, larger, more recently profitable niches over time.

A list of international companies attempting to produce fuels from algae (Wikipedia). The list is not complete by any means.

The world is not what you think it is, because the world is constantly changing -- mostly out of your line of sight. The organisations and persons responsible for keeping you informed about the state of the changing world are generally incompetent boobs, crooks, and cronies -- tunnel-vision locked onto their own agendas and corrupt commitments. You are nothing but pawns on the board to these people: your professors, your government officials, your talking head anchors and pseudo-intellectual journalists and pundits.

Yes, micro-algae can become a disruptive technology, once the infrastructure of growth, production, distribution, and end-use is built.

But the most disruptive "technology" of all is the independent human mind that is ambitious, ever-searching, and willing to work opportunistically toward high-value goals as they come into view.


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Blogger sykes.1 said...

Research on microalgae has been underway since the 1950s, and there is a huge literature on the topic. Initially, the interest was using them for sewage treatment, because sewage contains significant amounts of readily available N and P. This turned out to be a dead end when it was realized that algae themselves constituted a pollutant.

The use of algae as a protein source was very intensively studied, too. However, the problem here is that the DNA content of the algae is to high; metabolic products of DNA degradation are toxic to animals.

Another recent interest has been oil. Some algae store oils as a food reserve. However, economically extracting the oil is problematic--along the lines of oil shale. Also, oil production requires sterile culture techniques, which are very expensive on a large scale.

Finally, there are the issues of landuse and photosynthetic efficiency. Large scale oil production would have to be done in ponds or tanks to utilize sunlight. The use of artificial light eliminates totally any energy advantage. It is like bioethanol, which increases petroleum imports, and electric, really coal, cars that have an overall thermodynamic efficiency similar, or even inferior, to that of diesel cars.

As to land area, it would be very large. In practice, microalgae oil/food, et al., compete with normal farming for land. So, microalgae displace efficient crops and raise food price.

As to impact on potable (sic) water supplies, the wastes from algae culturing require significant treatment before discharge.

It is absolutely untrue that algae treatment of wastewater can product potable water. The literature on this point is voluminous.

It is also untrue that they are a source of fertilizers or nutrient supplements. These material have to come from another source and be fed to the algae.

All told, Ferndandez et al. have not done their homework on the past 60 years of research. They also have not analyzed the big picture. This is an expensive sideshow that has no potential.

Your Orwell quote is really appropriate here.

Monday, 11 July, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for your comment.

Some of your assertions are more true at the present time than others.

In general, your assertions are neither completely true nor completely false -- like most statements of "fact."

What was true 60 years ago is not necessarily true today, and is less likely to be true tomorrow.

For example, in the US most plans for algal farms involve either wastewater treatment, or placement in arid drylands (using salt or brackish water) -- far from arable land used for food crops.

A PDF overview of more recent research and projects for treatment of municipal wastewater using algae.

Bald assertions strung together in a necklace do not constitute an argument -- particularly when unsupported. The bottom line of your comment is that you do not like algae. Nothing further can be logically inferred, as your comment stands.

When providing sources, more recent sources are preferable, being more likely to reflect the state of the art at this time.

Monday, 11 July, 2011  
Blogger LarryD said...

Biofuel is another form of solar energy collection. True, it does get around the storage issue, on the other hand, photosynthesis is what, 9% efficient?

Do the math, insolation at the Earths surface is 1kW per square meter under optimum conditions, and goes down from there. Factor in the efficiency, solve for what ever fraction of US liquid fuel needs you want to shoot for, and the surface area needed is just too big to be practical. It's not just algae, all solar energy technology suffers from this problem.

Tuesday, 12 July, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

LarryD: Right. But what do you want? Light? Heat? Electricity? Fuel? Food? Mood elevation?

The sun can provide all of those things, albeit not particularly optimally. But at least admit the versatility involved with this hanging ball of plasma. ;-)

Tuesday, 12 July, 2011  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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