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"Old McDonald had an algae farm..." PetroAlgae grows algae in its specially designed "bioreactors" for later harvest and production into biodiesel.  (Source: PetroAlgae)

An aerial view of the PetroAlgae farm and processing facility. The company plans to mass produce biodiesel using the green water-crop.  (Source: PetroAlgae)
The majority of the Earth's surface is covered in water, thus it is perhaps unsurprising that the power source of the future may lie in the water

Gas costs are soaring, but adopting cheaper ethanol is sending food costs into the stratosphere as well.  What is the answer to this troubling predicament?  Some say the solution is old -- very old.  There is growing hope that one of the planet's most ancient organisms, algae, can be used to produce economically viable biofuel without the negative societal impact of ethanol.

While corn and sugar crops are blamed for deforestation, fertilizer runoff, and societal damage, algae promises to possibly provide a better solution.  Melbourne, Fla. based PetroAlgae is looking to test a commercial algae biofuel solution next year.  The company uses strains of the tiny organism developed by researchers at Arizona State University.  They are developing harvesting methods and bioreactors to take full advantage of the new fuel source, and allow it to be affordably mass produced.

Fred Tennant, PetroAlgae's vice president of business development, is among the leaders in the endeavor.  He is overseeing the development of a process in which algae is harvested from fresh-water ponds and then converted to oil and refined to biodiesel.  The byproducts are equally valuable, and can be used as a protein rich animal feed.

The plant may be able to strike deals with electricity utilities too, as the algae consume CO2, earning carbon credits.  Says Tennant, "The laws that are being debated right now will change a power company's life. They will have to have a lot more renewable energy and get rid of CO2.  Any power company in the world will be happy to pay us to take their CO2 away."

Other companies are also blazing ahead in the hot algae-based fuel market.  GreenFuels Technologies is on the verge of closing a major European commercial biofuel deal, after working on a multi-year project with the Arizona Public Service department.  Solayzme is working to develop fermentation based algae fuel production as an alternate method to photosynthesis driven approaches.  LiveFuels hopes to using its genetically engineered algae to produce 100 million gallons of fuel by 2010.

Why is algae so promising?  First it’s fast-growing.  Secondly, it removes carbon dioxide from the air.  Finally, it's a non-food crop and will have less impact on food prices.  Algae has more energy density than soybeans, a typical high-energy land crop.  This means less surface area will be needed to produce the fuel as well.

Michael Weaver, the CEO and co-founder of Seattle-area algae start-up Bionavitas states, "What's happening is there has been more focus recently on the food-versus-fuel debate, more focus on the price of feedstock, and more understanding that using an agricultural-based crop as a fuel is not sustainable.  We're seeing that reflected in the marketplace."

While algae is more energy rich than other biofuel alternatives such as wood chips, grasses, or agricultural waste, the biggest obstacle is that growing it is not cheap.  Tennant from PetroAlgae states, "Anybody can grow algae if cost is no object. Lots of algae companies have done a great job, but the system doesn't look like a massively scalable system."

PetroAlgae says geography is extremely important.  Sunny hot places speed up the drying process, a lengthy production step, given that algae is 98 percent water.  Ideally the plants would be located on 1 to 10 acre carbon generating locations, such as power plant grounds, the company says.

Technical difficulties exist as well too.  During the GreenFuel's Arizona Power pilot program it experienced the surprising problem of growing too much algae, making it too expensive to harvest.  Water recycling has been another key issue.  Weaver of Bionavitas says another important problem is bioreactors (typically bags or tubes) limiting light and thus hindering photosynthesis.

He states, "If you have a series of tubes or plastic bags on the desert floor or wherever, you are still limited by the amount of photons that get in from the sun to create more algae. When the algae gets slightly dense, it starts blocking its own light."

Despite the problems interest in algae production both as a food oil alternative and as a commercial gas and ethanol alternative continues to mount as research, enterprise, and capital vested grows.

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Huge Energy Density
By Chemical Chris on 5/2/2008 3:29:09 PM , Rating: 5
I did a report on biofuel last year for my final project in my 'scientific writing' class. Basically, sugar-based approaches (as is done now) is futile and a bad idea. Using cellulose-to-sugar-to-alcohol is a better option, but requires expensive enzymes or engineered bacteria, both too immature at present for viable production.
However, algae was the one high point. It grows in three dimensions without gravity (plant doesn't have to expend energy to stay upright). IIRC, 1 acre of algae (cant remember the depth, but lets say 10-20 ft) can produce ~10000 gallons of fuel per unit time, whereas corn only produces 300-400 gallons of fuel per acre per unit time. Thats without considering 1 year of growing corn requires 7-15 years of not growing anything to let the soil recover (in actuality, a season is, say, 6 months, so, it would be 3-8 years of now growth per season), fertilizer pollution, etc etc etc.
So, corn is dumb, then only reason its being pursued now is politics (they dont have a clue what they're talking about) and all the money already sunk into it.
Algae is much more promising, and is where the money should be going, or to cellulose ethanol, not sugar ethanol!
But alas, politicians will continue to mess it all up.
Politics, religion, and science should all stay away from each other, unfortunately, that is rarely the case.

RE: Huge Energy Density
By ksherman on 5/2/2008 3:40:10 PM , Rating: 2
Hmm, I don't think that politics, religion and science need to stay away from each other. That only makes our society even more polarized. And while this is not a political article, I give major props to McCain for standing up against Ethanol, in Iowa of all places, back a few months. I really really despise all this attention that ethanol gets, in politics and even in the minds of the people at times, and its great that he stood against the politics in such a polarized state.

Anywho, I am really excited for this research. It really seems that algae is the answer to our problems here and now. I really am excited to see algae-based biodiesel take off.

RE: Huge Energy Density
By blue76mg on 5/2/2008 4:10:15 PM , Rating: 2
Politics you say! I'm shocked! Religion! Shocked again.

There are no primaries nor voters in the Pacific ocean, that's why we have corn based fuel.

RE: Huge Energy Density
By rudy on 5/2/2008 4:51:27 PM , Rating: 2
Some times I do not get where people are getting data. 1 year of growing corn results in many years of not growing it? I have been to the midwest have you? there are not tons of fields sitting empty they rotate crops yes but most of it is corn and they often plant corn year after year. Something is wrong with your report. 7-15 years of not growing anything? where on earth did you get that crazy information.

RE: Huge Energy Density
By Comdrpopnfresh on 5/2/2008 5:19:51 PM , Rating: 2
rotating crops is a natural way to put nitrogen back in, but it is usually done through commercial fertilizers- which have obvious downsides. a few years (without rotation or anything) sounds about right

RE: Huge Energy Density
By JonnyDough on 5/2/2008 9:03:05 PM , Rating: 1
Agreed. Well said. I'm pretty much auto-rated down by a couple of jerks on here, but I don't care - I know people still read my posts just as well. Who doesn't click the open thing to see what some idiot said anyway?

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