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
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.
Nevertheless here is a pitch that we have made to the Obama Administration regarding Algae Based Diesel energy:
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.
What are you going to do with the millions of tons of biomass anyway, when producing biofules for a world market?