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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 icrf on 5/2/2008 4:57:40 PM , Rating: 1
You do know geothermal isn't any more renewable than oil, right? There's a lot of heat in the earth, but there's a lot of oil there, too. We can pull heat out much faster than can put be put back it in (again, like oil). If we adopt that widespread, I've no doubt 50-100 years later we'd have an "earth cooling" debate at least as ferocious as the current "global warming" one.

RE: One True Test
By BansheeX on 5/2/2008 5:33:21 PM , Rating: 2
Hopefully, he means those renewables in the self-sufficient sense, installed in homes and such, while the infrastructure itself is largely nuclear. Now that is a practical and desirable goal.

RE: One True Test
By Master Kenobi on 5/3/2008 11:42:09 AM , Rating: 4
I agree. We need a better electrical generation system (Most likely nuclear driven) to handle the increased demand that electric cards and other electric devices are demanding from the grid.

RE: One True Test
By JustTom on 5/3/2008 12:09:40 PM , Rating: 2
It goes beyond the just the generating of electricity. The distribution system at present would be incapable of handling mass adoption of electric cars.

RE: One True Test
By daftrok on 5/6/2008 11:27:11 AM , Rating: 2
They would if they can make a four down sedan with 150 hp and a 300 mile range for $30,000.

RE: One True Test
By MicahK on 5/20/2008 11:35:03 AM , Rating: 2
Why not have electric cars like the one put out by Tesla. It has looks, it has enough guts, and a good enough range for most people's commute.

You could put a small solar panel on your roof, that charges a spare battery while your at work. Swap out the batteries and your good to go. Now if swapping batteries can't be done (current electric cars would have to be redesigned), then you could just charge a big battery in your garage, and then plug your car into this when you got home to charge it...

Just an idea...

Oh yah, and geothermal sounds like a good idea, but is really only effective large scale. Not a good solution for an individual, we looked into it, and decided on solar thermal for heating....

RE: One True Test
By FITCamaro on 5/2/2008 7:05:33 PM , Rating: 3
I sincerely doubt we could ever "cool" the earth using geothermal power. You're talking about a comparative handful of plants vs. the surface of the earth?

RE: One True Test
By mcmilljb on 5/2/2008 8:09:15 PM , Rating: 5
Hippies will find a way. They always do.

RE: One True Test
By jtemplin on 5/3/2008 1:43:52 AM , Rating: 3
I did some calculations and estimated the total earth geothermal energy output to be 15.3x10^(9) watts over the entire earths surface. So a whole year of geothermal output is 4.83 × 10^17(*) watt-years (not sure of the correct notation..).

Its late so I'm not going to run the numbers on petroleum as it seems daunting but .483 exawatts (4.83 quintillion) yearly output seems...tough to beat. I'm with FIT on this one. No way petroleum energy exceeds the energy of the earth...wheres the BS flag on this site?

*-Real no.: 4.82889131 × 1017

RE: One True Test
By JustTom on 5/3/2008 12:12:45 PM , Rating: 2
How did you do these calculations?

What matters is not how much energy can be theoretically captured from any particular energy source what matters is the cost involved in capturing that energy. Petroleum is still the cheapest method of producing massive quanties of energy and probably will remains so, despite current prices, for quite some time.

RE: One True Test
By Pezman37 on 5/3/2008 2:49:51 AM , Rating: 2
Do you have any idea about how geothermal energy is generated? AS far as I know, it's not viable right now for logistical reasons, the weight of the earth's surface isn't gonna just get lighter, no matter how high you or the hippies get.

RE: One True Test
By icrf on 5/3/2008 9:30:26 PM , Rating: 1
Alright, so I was off an order of magnitude or two in my time frame. The rest of it still stands, though.

I'm mostly just trying to think of the extremist arguments that come up with these things. Wind power kills lots of poor birds. Hydro disrupts natural water flow and all manner of living creatures. Nuclear has radioactive waste. Coal and gas have combusion emissions. I'm not sure how to call out solar aside from cost and efficiency, which seems kind of a cop-out and doesn't have the hippie spin of the rest.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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