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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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RE: One True Test
By JonnyDough on 5/2/2008 4:43:05 PM , Rating: 0
The first post reading down from the top today that actually made sense to me. I don't know who rated up that first post. You're quite right, those that own the corporations are the same as those that make the laws. Money buys politics. Those that believe in the free market never set a foot into big business.

I'd disagree with the first post, by saying that IF it's viable for the masses it's because it works and has value to consumers because it's affordable to produce. The mass market (i.e. gasonline) is not the same as any niche market. You can't compare the two. A mass market is a DEPENDENT market. We buy gas regardless of the price if there is no alternative. It's not like other markets where there IS a choice, such as which cereal to buy. Big business is robbing us of choice, i.e. WalMart. Can you afford to shop anywhere else? Maybe sometimes. But the first thought when you need something anymore is "run to WalMart."

The bottom line is, has been, and always will be COST. It's why a corporation like WalMart can kill small local business and import 90% of their products from China. Because ultimately the consumer only cares about one thing - how much they have to pay.

It isn't about choice, especially when we're strapped for cash in this economy. It's about cost. Plain and simple. I don't care what type of fuel it is, as long as it works and is affordable and neither do you. This isn't like buying a CD where you either like Josh Groban, The Dixie Chics or ICP.

And let's not kid ourselves, consumers don't care as much about the environment and "green" as everyone acts like, or we wouldn't still have $1000 riding lawn mowers that produce more pollution in an hour than driving our car for an entire week.


RE: One True Test
By ebakke on 5/2/2008 5:06:22 PM , Rating: 4
My head finally stopped shaking back and forth, so now I can reply to your post.

Gas: We buy gas because the price is worth the benefit to us. This is the same as every other purchase made. There are alternatives to buying gas. Carpool, take the bus, walk, bike, etc. These are (exponentially) less convenient, and thus people justify the expense of gasoline.

Walmart, etc: The bottom line for you is cost. You place a high value on cost. Others value keeping a local company in business. Some will make sacrifices elsewhere to support things they value. In that case they value the local company more than they value going out to the movies, for example. It's all about the consumers, and their choices; it's not about the businesses and how bad they are.


RE: One True Test
By JonnyDough on 5/2/08, Rating: -1
RE: One True Test
By ebakke on 5/3/2008 12:46:55 AM , Rating: 1
Because saying "I really really really really disagree with you" just doesn't have the same effect.


"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins














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