Monday, September 6, 2010

Algae Fuel Progress

For newcomers to the algae biofuel scene, here's the algae pitch in brief: Some strains of algae are the best oil-producing plant. Unlike other biofuel sources, algae does not need to be grown on farm land or use fresh water -- it can be grown on non-arable land in ponds, tanks, vertically hanging sacks in greenhouses, or other apparatuses. Freshwater is not necessarily needed because many strains of algae can grow in salt water. But, regardless of the kind of water used, if the algae growing system is enclosed (not open to air), the water in which the algae grows is not lost to evaporation and can be recycled. Some algae proponents claim that enough fuel oil to power all the United States' transportation needs could be grown in 15,000 square miles, which, if this landmass were a square, would have only 122 miles per side.

Challenges in growing algae are finding or engineering strains that produce the most oil; designing the growing apparatus that uses space and energy most efficiently; and separating the oil from the algae.

While algae biofuel production may sound too strange, or too good, to be true, there are regular advancements that indicate the field is moving forward.

The month of June saw air-show flights of a small twin-engine Diamond DA42NG running on 100% biofuel made from algae oil. There have been past demonstrations of airplanes running on biofuel, but the concentration has not been 100%. That article reports that the fuel burns more cleanly and also more efficiently than standard Jet A-1.

In New Mexico, there is now the world's first fully integrated biofuel refinery. Nearly a year ago, I wrote about CEHMM's large-scale demonstration algae farm, composed of open-air ponds growing a native species of algae in brine water. Now this 501(c)(3) company, located in Carlsbad, NM, has announced completion of companion facilities for oil extraction and conversion to fuel. The operation can produce 1000 gallons of fuel oil per day -- nothing when compared to our nations current fuel needs, but enough perhaps to lead to further upward-scaling of algae production by this company and others. CEHMM's work is also important for drawing attention to the use of salty water and the non-arable land of Southwestern U.S., showing that algae production does not compete with food production for land and fresh water.

While the CEHMM project uses a native species of algae, lots of algae companies view genetic engineering as the key to cost-effective algae fuel production. The leader on this front is Crag Venter of Synthetic Genomics, which has been in partnership with Exxon with nearly a year. (Exxon's $600 million investment in algae makes it the world's largest algae company-- and algae is Exxon's only significant investment in alternative energy.) Before joining with Exxon, Venter had already genetically engineered algae to secrete its oil, thereby circumventing the expensive process of extracting oil from the algae cells. Now he has announced the creation of a fully synthetic living cell. While this synthetic cell is not an algae cell intended for fuel production, he has stated that he will turn his attention toward engineering algae cells optimally suited for producing fuel oil quickly, in high volume. The blogger at opines on this matter, summarizing the challenges algae oil producers face and speculating on what Venter's work could do for it.

One might be concerned that Exxon will keep its research tightly under wraps and unavailable for public use. But be assured that there are many algae companies vying to be the first to revolutionize the fuel industry. Scroll down the left-side menu column on this page to see a list of such companies. Most of these companies aim to be algae fuel producers -- but one company, OriginOil, intends not to actually produce fuel, but to provide the machinery for algae oil production and be, effectively, the John Deere of algae oil production.

Recently, OriginOil released a new production model for growing algae based on the fact that a single layer of algae, such as what naturally grows on the surface of a pond, uses only a small percent of the sun's energy striking it. This model, called a Multireactor, grows algae in channels arranged in vertically-stacked layers. Between the channels are lenses that collect sunlight and distribute it to the next layer beneath, where more channels contain growing algae, and more lenses further collect and distribute sunlight to the next layer. By efficiently using sunlight in this way, Origin can maximize the algae produced per acre of land used.

Origin has also done extensive work on how to most efficiently deliver CO2 and other nutrients to a growing mass of algae; and, the company claims to have greatly reduced the costs of extracting oil from algae by using low-energy radiation and ultrasound to break algae cells, thereby reducing the need for Craig Venter's algae with pores and giving the Exxon/Venter collaboration a run for its money. Such competition will be crucial in preventing Exxon from withholding its research until the timing suits them. We need algae farming as soon as we can get it.

In its quest to become the John Deere of algae oil production, OriginOil is taking steps to make its products readily demonstrable and deliverable to customers. A miniature, mobile version of its oil extraction apparatus travels the country, visiting prospective investors and algae growers, showing how Origin's technology can benefit them; and its new Multireactor can be shipped in modules in shipping containers for easy scalability on-site. In July of this year, OriginOil shipped a Multireactor to its first paying customer, MBD Energy in Australia, and in September followed-up with a shipment of oil-extraction facilities. MBD is using algae to capture carbon from power plants and convert it to usable fuel oil.

I’ll be watching for news on how Origin Oil’s equipment fares in Australia. Algae enthusiasts have said that algae farming will make its first impact in the realm of carbon capture. If all goes will with MBD Energy in Australia, this could be an important step.

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