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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 Comdrpopnfresh on 5/2/2008 5:42:46 PM , Rating: 2
There is a difference though. Ethanol is renewable, and does burn cleaner, so subsidies there are meant to give it a foot in the door to a market that was previously based on fossil fuels only.

There is also a tax on oil coming into the country, and at the pump that consumers pay (state and national). The subsidies for oil companies are geared towards giving them money outside of profits to reinvest into more efficient, cleaner technologies- but they can't be forced to do this (laissez fair).
The main reason why gas is so expensive in the US is because of a catch-22: People need gasoline, so oil companies provide it. But a new refinery hasn't been built in the US since the 70's. Our refining facilities and techniques are very aged, and no matter how much oil comes into the country, the limiting factor is refining. Refineries are put under a lot of scrutiny for safety concerns and environmental factors. No one wants to build them because it takes so long for the investment to yield a return. I doubt anyone would spend their own money on a facility to process a substance everyone hears is running out. And if oil companies shut everything down all of a sudden and switch to another energy source, masses of people would still be pissed. They are between a rock and a hard place, and it is only natural that they would want to have profits as large as possible.

A freemarket mainly means it is self-regulated by a balance of buyers and sellers, with minimal governmental oversight and forced direction. Pure communism can't exist in groupings of people over a few dozen, but it hasn't stopped millions of people from trying...

Oh, superfluids and supersolids have no friction... real physics.

RE: One True Test
By symbul on 5/2/08, Rating: 0
RE: One True Test
By Ringold on 5/2/08, Rating: 0
RE: One True Test
By symbul on 5/2/2008 11:44:26 PM , Rating: 2
If you have evidence of collusion, which you don't, then you could take such companies to court as collusion is illegal; fits nicely in with the idea of cartels being illegal, etc.

I guess I imagined the whole Enron/Arthur Andersen fiasco (to name one). Sorry to burst your bubble, but collusion does happen and more often than not gets settled but doesn't get publicized a lot (unlike Enron).

Most goods and services ultimately end up resembling commodities, and commodities are defined as being mostly uniform in nature. This is natural, and it allows standardization (thus better information) and lower prices (scale).

Then I guess it's fine if consumers are getting screwed on services and goods that aren't commodities... The 2 biggest purchase one will ever make are a house and a car. Those are not commodities.

Thanks to free speech you can, of course, make unsupported accusations about large amorpheous entities that are easily demonized (men and women with families do suit up and go to work every morning at these places) with little fear of repercussions.

You should look at who sits on the board of directors of the biggest companies. That exclusive club is not that big and those guys care about the men and women you mentionned only if it increases the profit margin.

My point is not about demonizing corporations, but about making sure there is a level playing field and real competition so consumers benefits the most.

Have a good day.

"My sex life is pretty good" -- Steve Jobs' random musings during the 2010 D8 conference

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