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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 gilboa on 5/3/2008 6:34:18 PM , Rating: 2

1) Fire. Solar Energy
2) Air. Wind Mills
3) Water. Hydroelectric Engines
4) Earth. Geothermal Plants
... four elements of life:

OK. Assuming that you -are- serious (and God I hope you're trying to be funny). Even though I far from being an expert in chemistry and physics, your post is.... err... weird. (And I'm being polite)

Fire has -nothing- to do with Solar energy. One is a chemical reaction while the other is a nuclear reaction; and no, you don't burn wood inside a nuclear reactor. (in-case you were wondering)

If you're looking for a connection (between different energy sources), 99.9....9% of our energy is generated, either directly (solar panels, wind, tidal power generators) indirectly (bio-diesel, hydro-electric, food) and very indirectly (oil, natural gas) by our Sun.
So yeah, feel free to call the Sun and element of life. (Quite literally -the- element of life)

I feel that instead of trying to go with fuel substitutes, we should try to push away from that and more towards advancing electrical engines and the elements of life to power it.

In general, having electrical cars is very nice. However:

A. You'll need to produce far more electricity (And I'd venture and guess that you're not very fond of Nuclear energy). It's not my field of expertise, but I'm guessing that burning billions of tons of coal won't bode well for the Earth's atmosphere... Oh, and building new power plants is -very- expensive and takes a lot of time.

B. You'll need to transfer far more electricity over the grid. (Time to build a new super-high-voltage-grids?) Building new grids takes a lot of time and, you guessed it, money.

C. Battery technology is still trailing behind your car's fuel tank: Long charge time, low(er) range, higher weight, etc. (Even-though this problem can be partially circumvented by using standard battery packs that can be replaced in "refueling stations")

D. Electric cars are (far?) heavier then their fuel driven counterparts. More weight per car == more weight per passenger == more energy per passenger / per mile == More CO2 is being emitted by a lot of new power-stations to transport the same amount of people == We lose.

Fuel cell based cars maybe the future - I don't know enough to doubt it; but in the mean time something must be done to keep us moving on one hand without sending earth into a runaway greenhouse effect on the other.

Having a clean power source (clean as in: Same amount of CO2 is taken and returned form/to Earth's atmosphere) is our best bet for the short term.

- Gilboa

RE: One True Test
By Hoser McMoose on 5/4/2008 4:01:34 AM , Rating: 2
You'll need to produce far more electricity

With a bit of intelligent charging this actually isn't that big of a problem. You need to build your electrical power generating capacity for peak demand. During off-peak times a lot of capacity is usually sitting unused.

The simple solution here is time of day pricing for electricity. Smart people will recognize that it costs them, for example, $3 to fill up their car by plugging it in at night vs. $10 to fill it during the day.

A more complex solution involves some smarts on the charging station to adjust according to demand, possibly even allowing electricity to flow back out of the car and onto the grid at peak times.

but I'm guessing that burning billions of tons of coal won't bode well for the Earth's atmosphere

Coal is pretty terrible for the atmosphere, but so is burning gasoline or diesel. From a CO2 perspective you're better off with electric vehicles even if 100% of your power comes from coal. From an air pollution standpoint you're about even if there are no scrubbers on the coal plant to MUCH better if they do have scrubbers. Coal plants without scrubbers should be criminal anyway, electric cars or no.

You'll need to transfer far more electricity over the grid.

Exact same story here as with the generating capacity but it's actually even easier as far as the lines go. Unless there is a near immediate switch to 100% electric vehicles this one is a non-issue (at least above and beyond the fact that the grid needs to be well maintained, electric cars or no).

Battery technology is still trailing behind your car's fuel tank:

HERE is the real key holding electric vehicles back, batteries. They're expensive, they're heavy, they're not as reliable as they should be (particular things like cold weather reliability), ohh, and did I mention that they're REALLY expensive? Like $40,000 in the case of the Tesla Roadster's 56kWh worth of batteries or $10,000 for the Chevy Volt's 16kWh worth.

The latest and greatest Li-Ion batteries available today are only JUST BARELY meeting the minimum requirements to make electric cars viable. Older technologies like the lead acid batteries or NiMH batteries found in the EV1 were not at all up to the task. Those two technologies also have serious environmental impacts, something that is greatly reduced in the case of Li-Ion batteries.

Still I think it will take at least one more major advancement in battery technology to make electric vehicles truly viable. The good news is that a lot of really smart people are working on this next technological leap. One technology that seems VERY optimistic is EEStor's capacitors:

I'm cautiously optimistic about the technology involved, though I'm holding final judgment until I see something a bit more concrete then some press releases.

For now though batteries are definitely a limiting factor. They are the reason why I see a LOT more potential in series hybrid designs, such as the Chevy Volt, as compared to a pure battery electric vehicle.

Electric cars are (far?) heavier then their fuel driven counterparts

This is due entirely to the battery issue mentioned above. The rest of the components are actually lighter in electric vehicles. Electric motors are much smaller and lighter and they can operate either without any transmission or, at most, with a very simple transmission. These components are very heavy on a conventional vehicle.

As an example, the Chevy Volt has an estimated curb weight of about 3100lbs, slightly less then the similarly sized Chevy Cobalt. And that is for a series hybrid with batteries, electric motors and a small ICE.

Fuel cell based cars maybe the future

Hydrogen fuel cells are a load of crap. They're just another battery technology, but a very heavy, expensive and inefficient one. Right now we're looking at a similar energy density to Li-Ion but charge efficiencies worse than old lead acid stuff costs that are astronomical. Even if we had the infrastructure in place to refill them hydrogen fuel cells would be a very poor choice.

RE: One True Test
By freaqie on 5/5/2008 6:18:09 AM , Rating: 2
Coal is pretty terrible for the atmosphere, but so is burning gasoline or diesel. From a CO2 perspective you're better off with electric vehicles even if 100% of your power comes from coal. From an air pollution standpoint you're about even if there are no scrubbers on the coal plant to MUCH better if they do have scrubbers. Coal plants without scrubbers should be criminal anyway, electric cars or no.

the problem is that burning gasonline happens in your car so lets say the effeciency of your engine is around 40%.
then we have gearboxes etc and total effeciency is 30%.

in a powerplant we have a big generator ( engine + dynamo right) lets state that the engine is 50% efficient ( so better then your car) and the generator itself about 80% so that leaves 40%. then the energy goes over the grid, losing a lot of energy underway. so we have 35 % left ( this is just a guess i do not know how much energy is actually lost probably a whole lot more)
then we plug it into a car with a battery with ...50% effeciency (also do not know but usually pretty bad) so we are left with about 17.5 percent and then the electric motor ( a good one os 90% efficient so 17.500.9 = 15.75 %.

now these are all guesses so please if i am wrong corrert me
but the thing is in a car it is combustion, transmission rubber. end of chain.
in an electrical system there are more elements where energy (and thus effeciency ) is lost, so therefore it must be less effecient.

however in the city it is a good thing no LOCAL pollution, and no enery consumtion in traffic jams...

RE: One True Test
By masher2 on 5/5/2008 11:17:08 AM , Rating: 2
> "now these are all guesses so please if i am wrong corrert me"

The IC engine in a car averages around 25% over its entire operating range, rather than 40%. The newest high-temperature coal plants can break 50% efficiency. You lose about 7% in transmission line losses, which takes the figure to 47% (0.5x0.93).

NiMH batteries have a coulumetric charging efficiency of around 66%...but LiIon batteries can run close to 99%. Electric motors aren't far behind that. The total end-to-end efficiency of the entire process can break 40% optimistically. That's substantially better than an IC car...and much cleaner, still, even if the overall efficiency was equal.

As Hoser pointed out, electric cars are being held back by battery technology only -- size, cost, weight, and charging time. Not because of efficiency concerns.

"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive

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