Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Algae Roundup

I've been cheerleading for algae as my favorite alternative fuel source for over a year. Of all plants, certain strains of algae are the best producers of vegetable oil well suited for making Diesel and jet fuel. It can be grown in artificial containers on non-arable land and does not necessarily need fresh water -- or, if using fresh water, growing algae in enclosed incubators means the water can be reused. Either way, unlike all other biofuel crops, algae would not compete with food crops for farmland and could possibly use salt water, wastewater, or comparatively little fresh water. This posting is a survey of several private companies and their progress on various ways to grow algae. I have raved about several of these companies before.

My favorite way of growing algae on any land using CO2 from plain old air (not artificially concentrated sources) is this invention by Glenn Kertz at Valcent Products. You can view it if you go to this page and click the link to the HDVB video on the right.

In the Valcent design, water is circulated through plastic bags hanging in basic greenhouses. It looks like the drycleaner if all the clothes were green dresses. Since the bags hang vertically, more algae per land area is exposed to sunlight. Also, most of the water is reclaimed. While any type of algae farm would be very expensive to set up initially, I like the apparent simplicity of this design. Note that he talks about breeding algae to make oil suitable for making jet fuel.

Another great place for an algae farm is near a natural gas power plant, where smokestack emissions are diverted into algae incubators. Here is one such facility at the Redhawk power plant in Arizona, run by Arizona Public Service. The algae company is Greenfuels Technologies, started by an MIT researcher who was looking into using algae to recycle air on space stations.

One problem with the facility is that lots of water is being used in a desert. The power plant folks say they get some water from burning the natural gas, but I'm not sure the plant produces enough of its own water to run these algae farms on a large scale. On the other hand, if this water can be reclaimed, since it's being used in closed containers, maybe it would make sense to bring in a trainload of water every now and then, just to replenish the supply.

And here's an Israeli company called Seambiotic that is also reclaiming smokestack emissions, but from a coal burning plant. They are using water from the Mediterranean Sea, readily available. Also note the use of a Wagner soundtrack on the video, strange for an Israeli company!

Solazyme is a company making great headway on algae, apparently. They use enclosed algae incubators not open to sunlight. Maybe they use fiber optics to deliver light to the inside of the incubators. There's no video at that link, just company information.

And here is where Solazyme announces it has produced jet fuel from algae that meets all official standards for jet fuel.

This means that Solazyme might be beating Petrosun for selling the first algae jet fuel in this country. Petrosun is a feisty oil-drilling company that has been trying to take the lead in algae, setting up inexpensive open-air ponds on the gulf coast of Texas and growing indigenous algae species in them. In the long term, I don't think this is a good way to grow algae because they lose water to evaporation, and you can't grow a genetically altered strain in them. Also, given the location of their algae ponds, it looks like they are using estuary water. I'm not sure we want to be fussing with estuaries.

Also note Algenol, a company that wants to make ethanol from algae. While ethanol has a bad rap because we think of it coming from food crops like corn or sugarcane, these folks say that some types of algae secrete ethanol, and the gas can be pumped out of the top of an enclosed algae incubator. With this method, there would not be harvesting of algae -- just keep it growing, and keep pumping out the ethanol. They are talking about building plants in Mexico.

And, last but not least, is Synthetic Genomics which is Craig Venter’s company. He’s the guy who beat the U.S. government in mapping the human genome. Now he says he has developed a strain of algae that secretes is oil outside of its own cells, so that the oil does not need to be separated from the algae by a mechanical process. So, this saves an energy intensive step in the algae oil process. Also, this means that, as with Algenol above, the algae does not need to be harvested. You just keep skimming the oil off the top.


Jessica T. said...

Fuel producing algae that eats Co2 is "to die for!" OMG! I'm telling everyone I know about this.

Caroline said...


Great blog site with lots of fantastic and interesting topics. Your article on Algae RoundUp is great. Thank you for your continued interest in alage as an alternative fuel and food source. We look forward to you writing more about Valcent and appreciate your interest and support.