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Algae bio fuels

Just three years ago, Colorado-based inventor Jim Sears shuttered himself in his garage and began tinkering with a design to mass-produce biofuel. His reactor (plastic bags) and his feedstock (algae) may have struck soybean farmers as a laughable gamble. But the experiment worked, and today, Sears’ company,

Solix Biofuels in Fort Collins, is among several startups betting their futures on the photosynthetic powers of unicellular green goo. The science is simple: Algae need water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow. The oil they produce can then be harvested and converted into biodiesel; the algae’s carbohydrate content can be fermented into ethanol. Both are much cleaner-burning fuels than petroleum-based diesel or gas.

The reality is more complex. Trying to grow concentrations of the finicky organism is a bit like trying to balance the water in a fish tank. It’s also expensive. The water needs to be just the right temperature for algae to proliferate, and even then open ponds can become choked with invasive species. Atmospheric levels of CO2 also aren’t high enough to spur exponential growth.

Solix addresses these problems by containing the algae in closed “photobioreactors”—triangular chambers made from sheets of polyethylene plastic (similar to a painter’s dropcloth)—and bubbling supplemental carbon dioxide through the system.

Eventually, the source of the CO2 will be exhaust from power plants and other industrial processes, providing the added benefit of capturing a potent greenhouse gas before it reaches the atmosphere.

Given the right conditions, algae can double its volume overnight. Unlike other biofuel feedstocks, such as soy or corn, it can be harvested day after day. Up to 50 percent of an alga’s body weight is comprised of oil, whereas oil-palm trees—currently the largest producer of oil to make biofuels—yield just about 20 percent of their weight in oil. Across the board, yields are already impressive: Soy produces some 50 gallons of oil per acre per year; canola, 150 gallons; and palm, 650 gallons. But algae is expected to produce 10,000 gallons per acre per year, and eventually even more.

“If we were to replace all of the diesel that we use in the United States" with an algae derivative, says Solix CEO Douglas Henston, "we could do it on an area of land that’s about one-half of 1 percent of the current farm land that we use now."

Solix plans to complete its second prototype by the end of  April 2007 and to begin building a pilot plant this fall. That plant will take advantage of CO2 generated from the fermentation and boiler processes of New Belgium Brewery, also in Fort Collins. The company’s initial target is to be competitive with biodiesel, which historically sells for about $2 per gallon, wholesale. They believe they can reach this goal within a few years, and are ultimately aiming to compete with petroleum.

John Sheehan, an energy analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., believes these goals are within reach. “There is no other resource that comes even close in magnitude to the potential for making oil,” says Sheehan, who worked in the lab’s algae program before it was shut down by the Department of Energy. One of algae’s great strengths, Sheehan adds, is its ability to grow well in brackish water. In the desert southwest, where much of the groundwater is saline and unsuitable for other forms of agriculture, algae can proliferate.

GreenFuel Technologies Corp., based in Cambridge, Mass., is focused on cultivating algae that can produce high yields of both biodiesel and ethanol. There are more than 100,000 strains of algae, with differing ratios of three main types of molecule: oils, carbohydrates and protein. Strains of algae high in carbohydrates as well as oils produce starches that can be separated and fermented into ethanol; the remaining proteins can be turned into animal grains. GreenFuel hopes its pilot plant will see initial yields of 8000 gallons of biodiesel and 5000 gallons of ethanol per acre of algae.

The main focus now, says Cary Bullock, GreenFuel’s president and CEO, is figuring out “how to grow algae fast enough and cheap enough that it makes sense economically. That’s not easy to do.”

With the science well in hand, the degree to which algae-based biofuels can replace petroleum—or the limited acreage of traditional feedstocks—rests upon that bottom line. Once the technology hits the ground, will a commercial-scale facility be on par with petroleum? Says Bullock: “You don’t know until you’ve actually built the thing.”
 

  • Algae bio fuels tested  ( 10 items )

    First flight of algae-fuelled jet

    A US airline has completed the first test flight of a plane partly powered by biofuel derived from algae. The 90-minute flight by a Continental Boeing 737-800 went better than expected, a spokesperson said. One of its engines was powered by a 50-50 blend of biofuel and normal aircraft fuel. Wednesday's test is the latest in a series of demonstration flights by the aviation industry, which hopes to be using biofuels within five years. The flight was the first by a US carrier to use an alternative fuel source, and the first in the world to use a twin-engine commercial aircraft (rather than a four-engine plane) to test a biofuel blend. The flight from Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport completed a circuit over the Gulf of Mexico, and pilots carried out a series of tests at 38,000ft (11.6km), including a mid-flight engine shutdown. "The airplane performed perfectly," test pilot Rich Jankowski told the Houston Chronicle newspaper. "There were no problems. It was textbook."

    'Drop-in fuel'

    Continental Airlines chief executive Larry Kellner described the biofuel as a "drop-in fuel", which meant that no modification to the aircraft or its engines was required. The fuel is also understood to meet and exceed specifications necessary for jet fuel, including a flash point and a freezing point appropriate for use in aircraft. "The challenge will be to produce it in an efficient way in the quantities we need," Mr Kellner said. The biofuel used in the demonstration flight was a blend of two different types of alternative oils - algae and jatropha. Jatropha is a plant that can grow successfully in poor soils and marginal land, yet it yields four times more fuel per hectare than soybean. However, algae is viewed by many as a key fuel for the future because it is fast growing, does not compete with food crops for arable land, and yields up to 30 times more fuel than standard energy crops. But despite advances in the technology, biofuels derived from algae have yet to be proven as commercially competitive.

    Clear sky thinking

    Despite airlines continually improving the fuel efficiency of their aircraft over the past three decades, a growing number of aircraft making more flights has seen the sector's global emissions rise sharply. As a result, the aviation industry is keen to embrace the environmental benefits that biofuels can offer. In February 2008, a Virgin 747 flew from London to Amsterdam partly using a fuel derived from a blend of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. And at the end of December, one engine of a Air New Zealand 747 was powered by a 50/50 blend of jatropha plant oil and standard A1 jet fuel.

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