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Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

Posted April 01, 2008 12:00 AM by Sharkles

Today may be "April Fool's Day", but algae biofuel is no joke. Harrison Dillion, co-founder of the synthetic biology company Solazyme, believes that Americans could be filling up their cars with algae biofuels in just two years. Let's look at some facts.

Algae biofuels research began with the Aquatic Species Program, a $25 million dollar initiative established by the Carter Administration in 1978. Research was designed to investigate high-oil types of algae that could be used as biofuels, and was run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). During its twenty-year history, the Aquatic Species Program discovered that certain types of algae could indeed supply enough biodiesel to replace fossil fuels for transportation and home heating.

Since corn production turns out to be less impressive than previously thought, more companies are beginning to focus on algae biofuels. According to Valcent Products, algae can produce 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre of algae, per year, by using an open pond system. However, as new algae-producing methods emerge, many people are abandoning the open pond system, which was susceptible to contamination and evaporation

New closed-loop "bio-reactor" systems may be able to achieve even greater numbers than those reported by Valcent Products. Still, some researchers say that one problem with growing the plant indoors is that it could negate the CO2 removal from the plant. Until one method is proven to be the best, companies are working to find the ideal algae production method.

Why algae? On its corporate website, Greenfuel Technologies explains that "algae are the fastest-growing plants in the world … they use photosynthesis to harness sunlight and carbon dioxide, creating high-value compounds in the process. Energy is stored inside the cell as lipids and carbohydrates, and can be converted into fuels like biodiesel and ethanol." So how do algae biofuels compare to ethanol?

Unlike corn, algae can double its volume overnight, "eat" pollutants, grow in brackish water, and can be harvested after a day. John Sheehan of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NERL) is an algae enthusiast who believes that algae could be directly competing with fossil fuels in just a few years. "There is no other resource that comes even close in magnitude to the potential for making oil", says Sheehan.

I often hear about the negative aspects of corn / grain production, so the thought of using algae as a potential biofuel is intriguing. When it comes to this research, however, I can only follow the news. Because I'm a consumer – and not a biologist or bioengineer - I'd support whichever biofuel would lower the cost of gasoline.


What do you think?

  • Is algae the "next big thing" for biofuels?
  • Is there even a realistic "biofuel"?



Resources:
http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/1490/70/
http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/1481/70/
http://www.greenfuelsforecast.com/ArticleDetails.php?articleID=481
http://www.greenfuelonline.com/technology.html
http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/earth/4213775.html
http://earth2tech.com/2008/03/27/15-algae-startups-bringing-pond-scum-to-fuel-tanks/

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#1

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/01/2008 1:04 PM

Is algae the "next big thing" for biofuels?

The cynical (and flippant) part of me says "no", unless there are some powerful U.S. Senators from algae-producing states. After all, politics is a part of ethanol's popularity.

Is there even a realistic "biofuel"?

Probably, but for more limited applications such as running a city government's fleet of vehicles - and not for powering all of the cars in the city.

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Anonymous Poster
#16
In reply to #1

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

11/23/2009 2:13 PM

Remember though, it is not just the pond scum in D.C. but it will also be the oil companies. If Valcent or any other company sells out their technology to the oil companies for big and attractive bank accounts...it is all over. The oil companies shelve the tech until they have completely exhausted your gas dollars.

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#2

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/01/2008 1:56 PM

I've been keeping tabs on pond scum technology for a while, and from what I have read, it is the one with the most promise.

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#3

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/02/2008 6:22 AM

Interesting idea,

Sounds logical, however South African company "De Beers fuels" that used Green fuel Technologies licence ended up to be a major scam that destroyed millions by naive investors, it does not mean that principals are false. This unfortunate example just suggests that there is a lot of sharks looking for quick buck in new technology market.I was seriously considering investing in this company and this technology and now I'm greatfull that I did not.

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/02/2008 11:06 AM

I am sure their are a lot of scams going on in regards to energy, with the cost of oil so high, people are more willing to try anything, even if it seems too good to be true. From what I have read the algae technology is a good one with a lot of promise. It would be sad if such a promising technology got a bad rep because it was used in a scam.

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#5

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/02/2008 11:20 AM

I've been following this since it was just a test in a lab.

Really looks the only downside is dependance on the sun...or the clouds rather...and the space restrictions. It would be great to be able to throw up a couple acres around any powerplant, stop it's pollution AND provide energy for vehicles.

Heck...if it's as efficient as Mother-Nature makes it then why not mandate that new coal/natural gas turbines reserve space around themselves for the installation of the associated plumbing.

If only there was a way to get the algae out of my pool and into the car... :P

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#6

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/02/2008 6:49 PM

Shell has jumped into this business, so there may well be something to it. Here is a nice article on the Shell web site...

http://www.shell.com/home/content/aboutshell-en/swol/jan_mar_2008/algae_13022008.html

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/03/2008 8:24 AM

Great article, Steve S! Thank you for sharing.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/03/2008 8:28 AM

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for a certain large international oil company that has yellow and red colored gas stations and a ocean theme...

Since the pilot is to be in Hawaii, there are a lot of engineers trying to get on this project...

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#9
In reply to #8

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/03/2008 8:41 AM

Ooh, I'd love to be an Engineer on that project then. Hawaii (I've heard) is beautiful.

It's refreshing to hear about an oil company working toward developing this type of biofuel. When I hear about oil companies on the news, the reports are not usually positive. The Shell example proves that is more to report than just high gas prices. I'm very excited to hear that Shell is trying to develop an oil alternative...it offers hope for the future!

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#10
In reply to #9

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/03/2008 10:24 AM

They have a large investment in wind power as well as providing hydrogen for the hydrogen fuel initiative in Iceland.

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Anonymous Poster
#15
In reply to #10

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

08/06/2008 11:06 PM

Hydrogen is not an energy source.

http://nykvetch.blogspot.com

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#11
In reply to #6

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/03/2008 11:11 PM

To all, Unfortunately, I think Shell has jumped into the business so that it can control the process, patent it, then shelve it as being too expensive or inefficient. Shell like all major energy companies do not want any competition for energy.


And as for the title; Better than ethanol? It all depends on the flavor.

Dragon

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#13
In reply to #11

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/04/2008 4:34 PM

There are several other companies doing algae biofuel as well....

Shell will sell what ever makes them money, including biofuel...

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#12

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

04/04/2008 8:32 AM

Luckily as a living organism...algae can't be patented. The process maybe but it's been worked on for a long time.

Perhaps more hope from bacteria...they've been breaking things down into oil for a veeery long time: http://www.gizmag.com/research-um-celluosic-biofuel/8972/ I support the idea as it doesn't use food sources (i.e. corn or grain) but rather the leftover cellulose that nobody is sure what to do with.

In the end the best "solar capture" device is photosynthesis...

I'd sure like to see someone come out with a DIY version of this algae thing...it'd be fun to try out...even on a small scale.

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#14
In reply to #12

Re: Algae Biofuels: Better Than Ethanol?

06/25/2008 11:51 AM

Seems like there is a lot of investment in this area....like mentioned in the string. Another company Global Green Solutions (GGRN)www.globalgreensolutionsinc.com has a compelling process and product about to go into the test phase as well. We may all be driving algae fueled vehicles in the future. And yes....better than ethanol...or the same...I think better in that the current process is using a food crop.

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