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The new breakthrough could increase the yield of algae bioreactors, decreasing the cost of algae-derived biofuels.  (Source: Treehugger)
New procedure could yield richer harvest of algae

While fusion power remains one of the most promising long-term power goals, another optimal future energy source may be algae.  Syracuse University’s Radhakrishna Sureshkumar, professor and chair of biomedical and chemical engineering describes, "Algae produce triglycerides, which consist of fatty acids and glycerin. The fatty acids can be turned into biodiesel while the glycerin is a valuable byproduct."

In the future, farms of algae tanks may provide affordable fuel capable of sustaining the auto industry without switching to scarce rare earth metals or radical redesigns.  However, a key challenge is to maximize algae growth and minimize the growth of parasitic organisms.

Green algae uses electro-active pigments Chlorophyll a and b, along with carotenoids, to capture sunlight.  That capture covers a very specific range of the visible light, namely the blue-violet spectrum.  By targeting them with that specific light, their growth can be sped up, while other types of undesirable photosynthetic microbes can be eliminated.

Professor Sureshkumar and SU chemical engineering Ph.D. student Satvik Wani have made an advance towards that objective.  By creating a suspension of silver nanoparticles, the researchers were able to backscatter blue light into an algae growing chamber, preventing more photons from escaping.  The increased exposure to the visible light's blue range led to a 30 percent increase in algal growth.

The pair found that growth could be maximized by optimizing the concentration of suspended nanoparticles and their size.  Professor Sureshkumar comments, "Implementation of easily tunable wavelength specific backscattering on larger scales still remains a challenge, but its realization will have a substantial impact on the efficient harvesting of phototrophic microorganisms and reducing parasitic growth.  Devices that can convert light not utilized by the algae into the useful blue spectral regime can also be envisioned."

The breakthrough could lead to advanced algae growing tanks that first filter light through a suspension of silver nanoparticles.  Silver nanoparticles are today commonly used in electronics, optics, wound dressings, and more for their unique properties.  They're also being evaluated as a possible treatment for HIV-1 [PDF].

The researchers published their work in the August 2010 edition of the prestigious journal 
Nature.



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RE: Would be nice to see...
By ppardee on 8/25/2010 3:47:28 PM , Rating: 2
There are other considerations in the algae vs photovoltaic generation. The only thing PV does is generate electricity. Algae will scrub CO2 from the air, which the envirofreaks will love because they claim it causes global warming, but I can love because I enjoy breathing.

In total power density, I wouldn't doubt that solar panels would win the race in the end, but that doesn't mean they're the ideal solution.


RE: Would be nice to see...
By FITCamaro on 8/25/2010 4:16:31 PM , Rating: 3
Solar power isn't really comparable in the world of autos. Algae grows us fuel essentially that can be burned in traditional diesel engines. Engines attached to fuel tanks which can easily and quickly refilled.

We are a long way off from a battery that is relatively inexpensive, can power a midsize car 300 miles, and be recharged in 5-10 minutes. So unless you're talking of putting solar panels on cars, the argument for solar vs. Algae isn't relevant. And there simply isn't enough surface area on a car to power it. Not on a real car anyway.


RE: Would be nice to see...
By Smartless on 8/25/2010 4:37:37 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah it was a bit of stretch for the comparison. I guess my worry is more of the direction cities are turning to. Electric cars for city driving are picking up steam and all this infrastructure money is heading towards charging stations and what not. I don't want it to be another "ethanol" deal where we pursue a solution meant to be a stop-gap at best. Home PV systems are picking up a lot of steam in Hawaii where biodiesel, though ideal, has stalled. Hell, I did a paper on alternate fuels in grad school 8 years ago and biodiesel was the best by far and here we are today, the energizer bunny is winning.


RE: Would be nice to see...
By Schrag4 on 8/25/2010 4:44:28 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, it really is apples/oranges, but I think what the OP was getting at is that if the density is similar, we should dump solar in a heartbeat in favor of this. I'd like to throw cost vs solar (for same energy output) in the list of attributes to compare as well, while we're at it. I think that might be EVEN HARDER to compare, though, since it's one thing to produce the power, it's a whole other thing to transport each one.


RE: Would be nice to see...
By randomly on 8/26/2010 11:47:37 AM , Rating: 2
In the near term we don't need 300 mile batteries and 5-10 minute recharge times. The PHEV approach leverages the strengths of both electric and internal combustion engines. A 50 mile battery range will accommodate 85% of people's daily commutes. A gas or diesel backup generator supplies power for longer trips.

Recharging can be done over a period of hours at night when the grid is at it's lowest demand. With a Smart Grid these PHEV batteries become a dispatchable demand that would allow increased use of wind power, the intermittent nature of which is currently a very limiting factor in using large percentages of wind power. By avoiding 5-10 minute recharge rates the expense of the enormously high power system that need to be built both inside and outside the car can be avoided.

No new fueling infrastructure is required. Gas stations will be around a long time and they will still fulfill the long distance travel needs. Should biofuels become economically viable the same gas station infrastructure can be used.

Liquid hydrocarbon fuels will still be needed for long distance trucking and air transport as there is no viable alternate fuels for these applications.

As to Biofuels - I'm remain skeptical due to the extremely low efficiency limits on energy conversion that stem from the efficiency of C3 and C4 chlorophyll and the related energy storage mechanisms. The resulting low energy density per land area demands enormous cultivated areas and this makes it extremely difficult to grow,harvest, and extract the energy cost effectively. Also the environmental impact of cultivating such vast areas of land (Corn ethanol would require 6x the total agricultural land available in the US to satisfy our vehicle fuel needs) is untenable. The severe impact on food prices, soil depletion, fertilizer needs, and the need for more fresh water than is even available put up a lot of warning flags.

A much more plausible approach is making liquid fuels from hydrogen stock produced by high temperature nuclear reactors using the sulfur-iodine cycle. This is definitely feasible and economically viable with minimal environmental impact compared to covering the planet in switchgrass or algae farms.


RE: Would be nice to see...
By Granseth on 8/25/2010 4:44:30 PM , Rating: 2
the algea won't scrub more CO2 than it will create when it burns. So at best it's CO2 neutral. But the CO2 will still be created, so fossil fuel will still be bad for cities.


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