Designer Algae: the next Biofuel?
In 2006, the dusty town of Anthony Texas had little more going for it than being a New Mexico border town and an alfalfa field. This Dusty Texas Town recently became the home of a new and developing technology and oddly enough, it's dependent on water. The old saying "Everything is bigger in Texas" doesn't tell the whole story when it comes to the Vertigro alternative fuel laboratory being constructed there. The dry stretch of land in West Texas might seem like the last place to study anything that lives in water, but the effort is based on more than just a new idea.
The West Texas Town Hi-Tech lab is designed for an unusual yet potentially revolutionary purpose; to explore how algae can be used to reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels. Alternative fuels are seen as having limited potential to curb oil consumption due to the reliance on oils from food crops like corn and soybeans, whose prices have been rising; the companies behind the algae plant are hoping to tilt the scales in their favor.
There are two companies behind the joint venture, El Paso's Valcent Products and the Canadian Alternative Energy firm, Global Green Solutions. The $3 Million dollar laboratory is hoping to further develop a system that to allow for low cost, mass production of algae in just about any location across the globe. Even though the process has yet to be tested on a wide scale, it could greatly accelerate the expansion of renewable fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol because the extracted algae oil can be usedto make fuel. Algae has definite potential but, other alternate biofuels have already hit the market and algae based fuel will need to be cost effective as well as environmentally friendly in order to compete
Currently, there are competing ideas about the best way to mass produce algae, as well as doubts about whether it can be produced at a lower cost than traditional oil. Once those questions have been answered, it still could take years to build the required infrastructure to produce and distribute algae oil on a meaningful scale.
Algae can be grown to produce Hydrogen
In 1939 Hans Gaffron, a University of Chicago research scientist, observed that the green algae he was studying, Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii, would occasionally switch from the production of oxygen to the production of Hydrogen. Gaffron was unable to discover why the algae would change to Hydrogen production and the answer would remain elusive for many years.
In the late 1990s, University of California at Berkeley Professor Anastasios Melis discovered that if the algae culture medium is deprived of sulfur it will switch from the production of oxygen (normal photosynthesis), to the production of Hydrogen.
Further research revealed that the enzyme responsible for this reaction is Hydrogenase, but that the Hydrogenase lost this function in the presence of oxygen. Melis determined that depleting the amount of sulfur available to the algae interrupted its internal oxygen flow, allowing the Hydrogenase an environment in which it can react, causing the algae to produce Hydrogen. Chlamydomonas moeweesi is also a good strain for the production of Hydrogen.
When used in wastewater treatment facilities, algae reduces the need for increased amounts of toxic chemicals than are already used. Another use for Algae is to capture fertilizers in runoff from farms, and when subsequently harvested, the enriched algae itself can be used as fertilizer. Algae can be grown to produce biomass, which can be burned to produce heat and electricity.
Algae Bioreactors are also used at power plants to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; the CO2 can be pumped into a pond, or storage tank, as a feedstock for the algae. Alternatively, the bioreactor can be installed directly on top of a smokestack, a technology pioneered by Massachusetts-based 'Green Fuel Technologies'.
Research on algae as a potential energy source began in the late 1970's running for almost 20 years until the U.S. Energy Department cut funding in 1996. Even with the lower gasoline prices of the 1970's, the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory determined that algae would likely not be able to compete when it came to cost per gallon against fossil fuels.
In recent times, there has been resurgence into alternative fuel research due to rising crude oil prices, and the resulting impact on our environment due to fossil fuels. Biofuel made from algae oil has a long road ahead, not to mention competition from fuel made from corn and sugar cane. Biofuel research, bolstered by government mandates are expected to boost biofuel demand in coming years.
The European Union alternative fuel goal was set in 2003; Derive 5.75 percent of total transport fuel consumption from biofuel(s) by 2010 and up to 20 percent by 2020. The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard Program requires that at least 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel be blended into vehicle fuel by 2012. Congress is also reported to be considering increasing the mandate to 35 billion gallons by 2017.
"Closed Loop" Algae Production
Vertigro, however, is about to begin building a pilot algae oil processing plant behind the Texas research lab, and company officials report discussions with biodiesel producers regarding licensing the "closed-loop" algae production system. While algae grows well in an "open pond", the Vertigro system uses a greenhouse filled with tall, clear plastic bags, suspended end to end in rows, to breed algae.
The bags have a constant supply of carbon dioxide, and are exposed to the sun thereby increasing the algae photosynthesis process. In this enhanced environment, the tiny green organisms can reproduce every 4 hours. An additional benefit of this process is that production is limited to selected strains which are energy rich. In the "Open Pond" method, these less prominent strains are typically crowded out by stronger strains which contain less oil according to Glen Kertz, CEO of Valcent, who developed the system.
The odds would seem to favor algae oil production. At 20,000 bags per square acre, algae yields around 100,000 gallons of algae oil per year. In contrast, one acre of soybeans only produces about 50 gallons of soybean oil a year, while one acre of corn yields about 29 gallons of oil per year. The largest benefit to date is that the Algae farms can be built virtually anywhere, a point hopefully demonstrated by locating a facility in West Texas.
Craig Harting, Global Green's chief operating officer stated that meeting U.S. gasoline and diesel demands with biofuels from seed crops would require all arable farmland in the nation to be planted many times over. With algae oil production, we can do it with less than 1 percent of that same area and it can be done anywhere.
Investing in Algae
Algae farms could help offset carbon dioxide emissions, which have been linked to global warming. Algae consumes carbon dioxide so farms built next to electricity plants or other industrial polluters could capture a portion of the carbon dioxide emissions prior to their being released into the atmosphere. The algae production line will need some time to grow and mature before investors are willing to devote the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars required to prove the process.