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.