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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 pillagenburn on 5/2/2008 5:10:17 PM , Rating: 4
the reason you see the lesser gas mileage is because ethanol is a very high octane fuel. Currently, I don't think any of the E85 enabled vehicles are equipped to harness Ethanol's real potential. Ethanol is 110 octane and thus will perform better in a much higher compression motor (i.e. 12:1 or greater). Ever see the kinds of performance gains that high compression motors yield when using race gas? (110+ octane) It's pretty phenomenal

I would LOVE 110 octane fuel... but then I'd also love a 13:1 compression motor and cheap race gas at every pump. Supposedly, when running at higher compressions, the gas mileage decrease going from pump gas -> ethanol is less than 10%.

Remember, ethanol is basically alcohol... google "alcohol injection" and look up a dyno sheet comparison.

RE: One True Test
By aeroengineer1 on 5/2/2008 6:44:48 PM , Rating: 4
I think that you are missing the point here. We tend to think of systems by their individual components, and while you are trying to tie the whole system together there are some things that need to be added into your thoughts. It is true that engine efficiency is proportional to compression ratio, but we already have fuels that can take the high compression without the alcohol content. These fuels, though sold for aviation use, and have other environmental concerns, are much more efficient than any alcohol based fuel when considering power per mass or per volumetric unit. This is the reason that many of these fuels have not taken hold.

Let's say that you boost you compression ratio, the results of that are that you will need to strengthen the engine block, which will increase weight. This can be offset by increasing power output. A diesel engine does this because its fuel has a higher energy content than gasoline, but with alcohol based fuels you will not get the increased energy output unless you add more fuel to the engine. This can be done, but by doing so you fuel efficiency will go down.

The way to go is diesel. It seems when you read the news so many focus on the smaller group that is making gasoline substitutes, but the real gains have been made in the diesel/jet fuel substitutions. There are many methods being explored and tested, with strong government backing because our airforce relies on heavy fuels, not gasoline. With the fact that the cycle describing the combustion for a diesel engine being more efficient over that of a gasoline engine, I think that it would be best to follow Europe's lead in diesel fueled vehicles. The issue of reducing emissions can be dealt with much easier, and will reduce overall oil dependency. This combined with nuclear advancements as well as batteries will allow for a new, but diversified approach to the energy situation in front of us. Other technologies will also make advances, but I think that these are things that we have had right before us, but due to public perception we have ignored them thinking that we will just wait and make the big leap to the next thing. We have spend 30 years waiting for solar, wind and hydrogen to become the next generation, and for some of those technologies we will wait another 30 years.

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