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Both startups and oil giants are experimenting with algae-based oil production. New research from the University of Virginia could help to jump start these efforts  (Source: CNN)
Can algae fill up your tank?

Wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal are all very promising technologies.  However each will need a great deal of construction and infrastructure changes.  Perhaps the greatest difficulty is adopting our transportation efforts, from cars to planes to run on electricity.

One promising alternative is to use biofuels.  Biofuels are getting a bad rap these days, as their early representative -- ethanol -- has driven up food prices in the U.S. and abroad.  However, the term biofuel also encompasses all other forms of fuel produced by living organisms, including synthetic gasoline.

Synthetic gasoline is perhaps the most promising of the biofuels.  Certain species of algae can be genetically engineered to produce hydrocarbon chains chemically identical to pure diesel fuel.  Best of all, the carbon used is snatched out of the atmosphere, meaning that burning the fuels has no net impact on carbon emissions.  The other good news is the fact that the pure fuel lacks the polluting sulfates and nitrates that oil typically contains.

DailyTech previously covered the efforts of a number of startups in their quest to develop green gasoline from algae.  One key difficulty is yields – typically, algae growing in a natural state only produces about one percent by weight of the hydrocarbons desired.  Now new a new research program from the University of Virginia aims to change that.

The new program, funded by a UVA Collaborative Sustainable Energy Seed Grant worth about $30,000, seeks to apply analytical engineering practices to optimizing the algae's fuel output

Algae are brimming with potential.  An algae field could produce 15 times more oil per acre than other biofuel plants such as switchgrass or corn.  Further algae can grow in salt water, freshwater or even contaminated water.  The new research revolves around the theoretical assumption that algae should produce more oil if fed more carbon dioxide and more organic material (in the form of sewage).  Lisa Colosi, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who is part of the project team explains, "We have to prove these two things to show that we really are getting a free lunch."

According to Professor Colosi, feeding carbon dioxide and organic waste to the algae can increase their oil yield to as high as 40 percent by weight.  If the team can prove that either of the factors can indeed boost production, it would provide additional benefits.  If the organic sludge works, the algae could be used to treat wastewater.  If the concentrated carbon dioxide works, the algae could have coal power-plant flue gas bubbled through it, which contains 10 to 30 times atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  This could help cut the emissions from coal plants.  Algae could else help remove nitrogen gas from industrial sources.

Professor Colosi comments, "The main principle of industrial ecology is to try and use our waste products to produce something of value."

The team has enlisted the help of Mark White, a professor at the McIntire School of Commerce, to analyze how the resulting picture of the algae-based biofuel's outlook stacks up to that of soy-based biofuel and other alternatives.  Professor White analyzes the outlook under three scenarios -- one a scenario in which a nationwide carbon cap was adopted, as some nations have adopted, monetizing emission cuts.  The second scenario is if a nitrogen cap was adopted.  The final scenario is if oil prices reached very high levels.

Rounding off the team is Andres Clarens, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.  Professor Clarens will focus on attempting to improve the separation process of the oil.  The team will methodically test batches of algae, a few liters at a time.  They will try different approaches, such as grinding up the organic matter "fed" to the algae.  They plan on feeding the hungry algae a variety of wastewate solids, living and nonliving, to see how it reacts.  Says Professor Colosi, "We're looking at dumping the whole dinner on top of them and seeing what happens."

While many startups and oil giants Chevron and Shell are all looking into algae-made fuel, the team says there are numerous benefits of the public research.  First it may cast light on techniques that are being kept secret by those developing the tech for private entities.  Secondly it may spur interest in the field and help to legitimize it.  Finally more algae-oil research may even help future research project win grants from the U.S. Department of Energy or other sources.

DailyTech recently reported that other microorganism, such as genetically altered E. Coli may also be used to produced biodiesel.



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RE: Potential
By mdogs444 on 8/21/2008 10:01:26 AM , Rating: 5
quote:
Most environmentalists I know love the prospect of algae-gas.

Of course you know that will change once it meets reality, and we do starting burning them. Their current opinion is just a holdover to try to get us off oil, then it will change once that mission is accomplished.

Environmentalism is a never ending cycle - much like a little kid who is never satisfied and escalates his mind changing process each time his parents cave in.


RE: Potential
By JasonMick (blog) on 8/21/2008 10:39:48 AM , Rating: 5
quote:
will change once it meets reality, and we do starting burning them


...I don't know about that, last I checked some environmentalists and hippies liked to burn certain plant residues :P


RE: Potential
By abzillah on 8/21/2008 4:15:54 PM , Rating: 2
After the oil has been squeezed out of the algae, they can use the algae as fertilizer and reduce the cost of operations. Waist water would be cleaned by algae, which produce oils, and are fertilizers and all I see is $$$ and more $$$$$ from this!


RE: Potential
By Murloc on 8/22/2008 10:19:49 AM , Rating: 2
Looooooooool that's true :)


RE: Potential
By MrBlastman on 8/21/2008 10:54:27 AM , Rating: 2
What happens when certain environmentalists start protesting the unfair treatment of Algae?

"It is kept locked up in plastic bags all day. It is never given any free time, it is constantly worked hard 24/7 for what? So humans can burn their petrol in automobiles? The humanity. Those poor algae. Never free to roam the oceans abroad. Never to see the sights of whales migrating through the oceans blue. Never to witness the conception of non-algae life. Yes, this is horrible. We must free the algae!" - A. Environ Mentalist


RE: Potential
By AnnihilatorX on 8/21/2008 2:07:55 PM , Rating: 2
That'd be animal or plant activist.


RE: Potential
By snownpaint on 8/21/2008 4:05:17 PM , Rating: 2
What about Vegetarian gas?


RE: Potential
By ThePooBurner on 8/21/2008 8:50:22 PM , Rating: 2
We can burn them too. ;)


RE: Potential
By HinderedHindsight on 8/21/08, Rating: 0
RE: Potential
By Topweasel on 8/21/2008 12:37:04 PM , Rating: 3
Your right about the all things in life being kind of circular. But the problem comes from two lines of reasoning, Perfect so called harmony with the world where humans are neither hunters nor prey, and exist with no imprint on the world. The other mind set being, that as the most advanced, mentally and physically capable that we should do everything in our power to become a better and more advanced species, and our thoughts should only be on our success just as any creature would.

Sure their are people in between and many layers. But for some one who sits a little more on the latter how is us building a skyscraper any different then a stampede of Apatasourus's traveling 20 miles and clearing out all plant life in between. How is the us mining coal, any different then a bunch of elephants emptying a pond. How is Farming any different then a pack of wolves surrounding an feeding area of deer, and just picking them off as needed.

As for this exact usage of fuel. Most of this is based off of the idea that the CO2 that the cars give out is causing the the pre2004 global warming. Its now labeled as pollution. Do you know what also gives out CO2? I will let you in on a secret, everything (living) expect plants (they consume it). If you knew what fraction of a percent that automotive actually give out compared tho the trillions of termites, ants, wasps, bee's, deer, cows, tigers, lions, panda's and all other forms of life's, you would say so whats the issue. I don't think anybody disagrees that their might be a better option for fuel, but it needs to be just as efficient, cheaper, and not forced through mass hysteria.

That is where the environmentalist issue comes in. It only works when the public goes insane about it so for the people who actually think about, all their hear is insane rambling of confused and possibly retarded people. Because if fuel still cost $1.50 a gallon, and E85 cost $3.00 a gallon the only reason people would switch is if they thought the world was going to end otherwise. The only reason any of this has reached the level it has is because certain groups have gotten buy in from top name trend setter's, and because with current costs of gas people are more likely to believe that gas and not the sellers of gas are plain evil.


RE: Potential
By masher2 (blog) on 8/21/2008 1:12:49 PM , Rating: 4
> "if environmentalism were a child, what would it sound like?"

I don't know, but I know what environmentalism as an adult sounds like:

"Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental"
-- Dave Foreman, Earth First

"I suspect that eradicating smallpox was wrong. It played an important part in balancing ecosystems."
-- John Davis, environmental editor and author.

"If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it"
-- Amory Lovins, founder Rocky Mountain Institute

"To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem"
-- Helen Caldicott, Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans"
-- Dr. Reed Ross, the Wildlands Project

"We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts one might have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."
-- Stephen Schneider, Stanford University, speaking on Global Warming.


RE: Potential
By Alexvrb on 8/21/2008 8:03:02 PM , Rating: 2
I especially like that Schneider bit. He might as well have said, "Damnit, people! Don't you get it? We need to lie more!"


RE: Potential
By drmo on 8/21/2008 12:17:21 PM , Rating: 3
Since windmills are hated, even though they are relatively clean, then this will be hated by environmentalists or farmers or food consumers. Think of having your beautiful farmland, or pristine prairies turning into what looks like giant popsicle containers. What about the local biodiversity? What about the large tracts of farmland not producing food? What about plowing down forests to produce land to make oil?


RE: Potential
By Ringold on 8/21/2008 2:34:28 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Environmentalism is a never ending cycle - much like a little kid who is never satisfied and escalates his mind changing process each time his parents cave in.


Lots of joking about it in other posts, and a little denial, but I think you're right mdogs. At least, you might be. These types of people have been rabid opponents of genetically modified crops in Europe. Drought-resistant seed? Higher yields? Seed optimized for local climate conditions? Insect-resistance? Not enough for them. They're apparently quite happy to have to subsidize their farmers to be competitive and pay higher prices for food rather than adopt the latest technology.

If they can be opposed to GM seed, lets not be shocked if, before this technology becomes commercialized, they'll become fierce opponents of this as well.

Oh, and thats not limited to Europe. "Organic" food became sexy here, though I'm not sure its based on the same sort of opposition to GM food as in Europe. Here it's mostly just snobbery, I think.


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