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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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Some things missing
By Comdrpopnfresh on 5/2/2008 4:42:57 PM , Rating: 2
I did my senior paper, necessary to graduate from high school, on a topic encompassing this.

Of the 22 million barrels of crude oil used each day in the US, 40% of it goes to cars and transportation
-U.S. Department of Energy

There are naturally-chosen, non genetically altered strains of algae that grow quickly. A few of them contain nearly their own weight in oils, that when compressed create pure biodiesel- no processing required. The dried flakes are high in protein, as mentioned, but could also be used when cellulose-ethanol takes off, creating more ethanol per pound of raw material than crops specifically grown for fuel production.
Isaac Berzin, a rocket scientist at MIT did extensive research and trial-implementation of algae as a way to clean flue gases while also creating fuel. Tubes full of water and algae have flue gases run through them to achieve this. He says that a SINGLE 1000-megawatt power plant with the algae system could produce upwards of “40 million gallons of Biodiesel a year," 1000-megawatt power plants are not few in number, and not nearly the largest capacity either. That same 1000-megawatt generator would also be able to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol a year with cellulose-driven processes. Plus, much of the pollution is pulled out to make all the algae grow. For instance, the levels of carbon dioxide are reduced by 40% after going through algae. Sulfides and Nitrogen compounds, which contribute to global warming, smog, and the depletion of the atmosphere, are reduced as well. Another great reason to use algae to clean the air at the site of pollution (flue gases) is that the ample heat and pollutants the algae feed on is enough to sustain them- minimal sunlight is required.

The whole thing about not enough land is bull. The oils algae create are better suited for diesel (since it is squeezed out as pure biodiesel), and on a per-capita basis of both energy and fuel output, could leave soybeans simply being grown for food. Neat diesel, otherwise known as B100 or pure Biodiesel releases 75% less C02 gas than petrol (a gallon of gasoline, when combusted releases 18 pounds of CO2 into the air). Biodiesel releases less particle emissions, less smog-forming emissions, and a sweet smell of freshly made fried food than petrol-diesel. Whereas ethanol has less energy per unit volume than standard gasoline, diesel, including biodiesel, has 10% more energy per gallon than gasoline.

Soybean-derived Biodiesel can only provide 60 gallons of fuel per acre of crop. This is a very small number of gallons per land taken up compared to the use of algae. Also, crops must be replanted in seasons, and given time to mature and bear fruit. In a startling comparison, the same acre, if filled with algae-filled tubules would be able to produce 15,000 gallons of Biodiesel per acre.

The algae don’t need to be connected to flue gas, or replace current croplands either. According to John Sheehan, the former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a stretch of desert 15,000 miles long filled with algae tubes could produce enough fuel to replace the nation’s current demand for petrol-diesel. Even more interestingly, the Sonoran desert, which shares the boards of California and Arizona, is more than 8 times the 15,000 square miles cited by Mr. Sheehan.

Clayton, M. (2006, Mar 2). Yellow light for a 'green' energy source. The Christian Science Moniter, Retrieved Mar 13, 2006, from en.html.

Environmental Defense, (n.d.). Global warming. Retrieved Mar. 12, 2006, from

King, T. (2005, December 10).Gibson county may become a green giant. The Jaxkson Sun, pp. .

Lashinsky, A. (2006). How to beat the high cost of gasoline. Time, 153(2), 74.

LeDuc, D. (2005, December 23).Area to get new biodiesel plant. the News-Sentinel, pp. .

SinClayton, M. (). Algae- like a breath mint for smokestacks. The Christian Science Moniter, (1/11/2006), .

Sinenj, R. (2005, August 16).Big benefits are seen in biofuels . The News Journal, pp. .

U.S. Department of Energy, (2005). Retrieved Mar. 05, 2006, from Alternative Fuels Data Center Web site:

I think it is really a shame that great ideas like this only get attention when fuel prices are high, and people are constantly told the world is going to end from global warming. It happened when hurricanes ravaged the south of the US, and around election times- but then people just go on overspending and wasting until some other even brings it up.
What is good for the environment is usually helpful for consumers- plus, any fuel-crops, including algae that are grown in-state don't need to go through international markets, don't need to be shipped, and no other country can stifle an internal supply of fuel...

so basically, no more desert-hoping to flex US might and keep oil coming from the mid-east. I say let them keep it.

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