13 April 2011

Algae are Optimistic about the Future

More: A study from the Pacific Northwest National Lab outlines how the US could replace 17% of its petroleum imports with homegrown algal fuels.
Abstract from study

While human academics and analysts are all too quick to write off algae as serious contenders in the energy race, the algae themselves are completely optimistic about their own futures. Perhaps the algae know something that we do not know? Well, for one thing, algae is already a big business. For another, algae has a lot of potential for productive yield -- and is just getting started.
ALGAE are being put to work performing a unique double duty: cleaning up sewage waste while simultaneously producing biofuel.

All algae feast on phosphates and nitrogen-containing compounds, converting them to lipids. Some of these oils can be converted to biofuel, but only a few algal species produce lipids of the right type and quantity to be easily converted to fuel. In theory, though, algae are a perfect renewable fuel source. The main obstacle is that brewing the right nutrient mix can be prohibitively expensive.

Now, in work for a master's thesis, Eric Lannan, a mechanical engineer at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York and colleagues have identified three types of microalgae - Scenedesmus, Chlorella and Chlamydomonas - that efficiently convert nutrients to fuel on a diet of municipal waste water, while happily living in its harsh, salty environment. In a lab test, it took just three days for the algae to gobble up 99 per cent of the ammonia, 88 per cent of the nitrate and 99 per cent of the phosphates in a broth resembling that from a domestic sewage treatment plant, turning themselves into rich sources of fuel even as they purified the water.

"People had looked at algae to clean waste water, others to make biodiesel," Lannan says. "We're putting those ideas together." _NewScientist
The idea to use waste feedstocks for boosting algal production is not especially new, but it still needs to be demonstrated on a large scale. And the demonstration must show that the resulting algae can be used to produce valuable products to make the entire process self-sustaining and profitable.

Besides using wastewater, the use of high CO2 effluent from power plants and cement factories etc. would provide the carbon boost for rapid growth, which algae crave.

Algae do not need too much sunlight -- in fact too much sunlight can reduce yields for valuable algal products. Solazyme, for example, grows its algae in the dark by feeding them sugars from biomass for fuel. They claim an 80% lipid yield, which is quite high.

Artificially inflated prices for crude oil are driving a multitude of approaches to the production of alternative liquid fuels. Fuel from algae is but one of many alternative approaches to liquid fuels, and algal researchers are taking dozens of divergent approaches to create algal fuels. Other microbial fuels approaches appear equally promising at this time.

A lot of money is going into the effort to create microbial fuels and fuels from biomass. But the key discoveries will not necessarily come from the best-financed research labs. Time will tell.

Those who think "biofuel" means only maize ethanol, are going to be very surprised when they discover what is really happening.

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Blogger gtg723y said...

What I like about this the most is that the main inputs are the sun and human poo water. But I get the feeling the energy starvation (green) party will find something wrong with this.

Wednesday, 13 April, 2011  
Blogger gtg723y said...

Al, I hope you do not mind I have been bringing up some of your topics on the Libertarian Party discussion boards. With full credit of and my highest recommendations to you of course, but I thought I should let you know.

Wednesday, 13 April, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

You are welcome to use whatever materials from this site you wish, as long as you link to the original material.

There is no requirement to agree with or to recommend the ideas, assertions, or suggestions published herein, in order to re-publish or discuss these materials. Linked attribution is all that is requested.

I have several times followed links back to sites that inform readers of what a racist Al Fin is, or what a "denier" of global warming he is. Such links let me know that I am getting through. ;-)

Thursday, 14 April, 2011  
Blogger Tom Craver said...

Algae only converts around 1% - 2% of solar energy per unit area. It's far less effective at collecting energy, per unit area, than solar thermal or PV (around 33% and 17%).

So algae is a lot better than soy or rapeseed, but that mainly tells you how inefficient it is to make fuel from those - let alone corn ethanol.

Sunday, 17 April, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Tom: Yes, but you may be comparing apples and oranges, since algae will be put to a different use than low voltage DC PV or solar thermal.

For food production, humans have put up with the limits of chlorophyll for many thousands of years. Fuel will be only one of the uses for algae, as the technologies improve.

Rapid biomass growth will be put to better and more comprehensive use over time, because the Earth is perfect for producing biomass over almost all of its surface, and has been for billions of years and is likely to be so for billions of years longer.

There is nothing about all that which will prevent anyone from building PV cells or solar thermal plants, of course, should it be economically viable to do so.

That is what we are talking about here: a broader economics rather than pure energy efficiencies.

Monday, 18 April, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

Here is more information on photosynthetic efficiency of algal biomass: The maximum biomass storage efficiency of algal biomass under controlled conditions is roughly 18%.


Monday, 18 April, 2011  

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