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Algal Biofuels - Time for Grand Scale Production?

Though there is much mention of the promise of algal biofuels and word of their commercial development, it seems timely to view what precisely has been achieved in terms of significant algal biofuel production rather than laboratory-based research, which has been going on for about 50 years. The U.S. Navy has fuelled a destroyer ship using 20,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel for a 20-hour trip, and is its largest alternative fuel experiment to date.

Thus a decommissioned destroyer made a successful journey from San Diego to Port Hueneme, in California. In terms of air-transport, United/Continental Airlines have made a second successful test flight powered by algal fuel, flying from Houston to Chicago. In 2011, over 100,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel was purchased to fuel the Navy's "Great Green Fleet" in addition to a number of separate tests of algae-derived fuels on various aircraft and boats. It is thought that by the end of 2012, the fleet will be fully operational, making the Navy an algal biofuel leader.

Privately funded efforts have been made to inaugurate commercial-scale algae farms on open-land, inside commercial buildings and in shipping containers, all of which has aided the National Algae Association to enhance its base of knowledge, research, collaboration and deployment opportunities. Clearly, there is a pivotal role for collaboration between universities, colleges, community colleges and the algae production companies to provide algal fuel on a significant scale.

Economically this year is unlikely to be any better than 2011, and so issues of expense, practical difficulty and that far more research is necessary before any serious production can be accomplished might act to militate against a significant development of algal biofuel. In view of the likely imminent arrival time of the supply-demand gap for conventional crude oil, it would make sense to spend more money on grand-scale algae production than on basic research alone.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); rising to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the U.K. at the age of 34.
A prolific author, Chris has published more than 400 research and popular science articles (some in national newspapers: The Independent and The Daily Telegraph)
He has recently published his first novel, "University Shambles" was published in April 2009 (Melrose Books). http://universityshambles.com

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  • Durwood M. Dugger on January 18 2012 said:
    I take it you have no understanding of the relationship between peak oil and peak phosphate - in that at scale algae and biofuels in general are dependent on the NPK fertilizers produced with these peak commodities? Do you understand that both the price and amount of phosphate reserves are determined by the price of fuel? Determined in that as the price of fuel rises - it takes higher concentrations of phosphates to justify their mining economically? Or, another way to look at it is that the phosphate reserves diminish in size as fuel prices rise. Current estimates (based on economically mineable deposits) are that we have 50 years of phosphates left - and that assumes that there is no biofuel industry. It also ignoreses that both China and India continue to switch from a manure based agriculture to an a modern NPK based ag. technology. Do you understand that that any "grand" algae biofuel industry would compete with directly with food crops for that NPK and that remaining phosphate reserves for food would be diminished even more rapidly.

    The gap in supply from peak oil is going to create a similar gap in phosphates for fertilizers which are tied directly to fuel prices. However, we are replacing oil with solar and wind. Currently there is no economic replacement for the cheap phosphates that generated the "green revolution." It makes no sense to worry about peak oil and not be even more worried about peak phosphate which = peak food = peak people. Bottom line algae and other biofuels are neither renewable or sustainable.









  • Cliff Claven on January 19 2012 said:
    Unfortunately, the laws of thermodynamics haven't changed in the (actually 80) years that folks have been trying to derive oil from algae. A credible lifecycle analysis (see Clarens et al. 2010, UVA) shows a best case EROI of 1.06. The Navy spent $430/gal on the algae-derived diesel oil in the recent ship publicity stunt. The highly publicized recent contract with Dynamic Fuels and Solazyme costs the Navy $26.75 a gallon, and only a token amount is from algae feedstock; the bulk of the 450,000 gallons is to be derived from chicken fat from Tyson Foods. RAND said in its Jan 2011 study (http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG969.html) that the military pursuit of biofuels is a waste of taxpayer money, and all the flying and sailing "tests" are not experiments but stunts that answer the wrong question: we already know biofuels can be made to work in engines (55 commercial studies already done before 2011), what is proving impossible is making them economically and with a positive net energy balance, without destroying the environment, and without causing famine. Honeywell UOP just won a DOE contract for $1.1M to produce 100 gallons of fuel--that's $11,000 a gallon. This is how the Administration and the Navy are spending our tax dollars and adding to our $15 trillion debt. The 2.5 barrels Honeywell will use to deliver this fuel to the government will hardly be big enough to hold the cash the government is paying. The Navy can either pour money down this hole, or keep ships floating to deter China. I suggest the Professor continue his education before making investment recommendations.
  • fat algae on January 19 2012 said:
    You may want to check out the National Algae Association, the trade association. They have designed the first 100 acre algae farms with all CAPEX and OPEX.
  • Eric Sean Tite Webber on January 20 2012 said:
    Great article, and Algae based diesel is carbon sequestering to boot, not that CO2 is a bad thing, as every chemist & biologist knows it is what plants inhale.

    Nevertheless here is a pitch that we have made to the Obama Administration regarding Algae Based Diesel energy:


    Be well
  • Organic Mechanic on February 01 2012 said:
    I think we are on the verge of a revolution in biofuels and materials due to algae.

    Algae can be made into a variety of biofuels, including biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, and biogas. To add to the conversation, here are some pros and cons to algae as fuel:

    Algae grows in all directions
    Single celled, no superstructure required for algae (roots, trunks, leaves)
    Growth: 140 days for land crops; algae is year round, mature in 1-2 days
    Algae weathers extreme conditions, is resistant to drought, wind, rain
    Grow 30-100 x more oil per acre than corn or soybeans
    No sulfur, non toxic, biodegradable
    Can mix with existing fuels in existing vehicles
    Can also produce bioplastics, medicine, nutrition, feed, fertilizer, more
    Can absorb CO2 and other pollutants from power and cement plants, fossil fuel refining, fermentation based industries, ethanol production, etc


    Scale - difficulty replicating lab results into larger volume of production

    Growing - using open ponds are easily contaminated, PBR's (photobioreactors) can be expensive

    Processing - challenges to harvesting & extracting oil

    Carbon Capture - is it really feasible? Can the algae keep up with the output, and what about during the night when algae is not active? Can the waste be reliably transferred into the algae? Are the right growing conditions and enough land there to cultivate the algae? ("to fully use the emissions from a 50 MWe natural gas fired power plant land would require 2200 acres of algae.") Additional nutrients are required, such as N, P, or K, which must be added in precise amounts and typically come from chemicals like ammonia or nitrate and phosphorous. Taking into consideration all of the processing, is there a net capture of CO2? Also, capturing the emissions it is not true sequestration, as it will be burned again as fuel.

    Differing results from strains, environmental conditions, growing systems

    If chemicals are used to extract oil or process fuel, exhaust can be toxic

    Environmental Concerns - in scaled cultivation, especially of GM (genetically modified) algae - what if it seriously disrupts the ecosystem?

    To learn how to make algae biofuels, check out:
    Algae to Biodiesel: http://www.organicmechanic.com/algae-to-biodiesel/
    Algae to Ethanol: http://www.organicmechanic.com/algae-ethanol/

    For a look at the broad range of goods possible from algae and considerations for how to scale them up into entrepreneurial pursuits, check out Algae Business:

    Let me know if there are any questions about algae, or equipment to cultivate and use biofuels! Organic Mechanic provides green solutions for electricity, transportation, and agriculture.

  • AlgaeObserver on February 11 2012 said:
    Not intending to be too provocative, but maybe we need a paradigm shift. What if we focus on the protein content of algae in order to face the challenges of a growing population and sell the residues (e.g.lipids) "subsidued" by the good price for the protein.
    What are you going to do with the millions of tons of biomass anyway, when producing biofules for a world market?

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