Algae as a source of Biofuel

In the previous post I wrote about alcohol as a fuel from Cellulose in the plant(often referred to as Cellulosic Ethanol).
The next field of green technology which is also expected to bring about a big transformation in energy security is the conversion of Algae to vegetable oil and biodiesel.
What is algae? In simple terms it is just an open pond scum. Technically,it is a fast growing single celled organism. And the organism can use atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight(in presence of nutrients)to sugar,oil,proteins and oil. The facts that make it an attractive source of future fuel are very compelling if one considers the following:
-Only 2.5kg of algae needed to produce 1 kg of oil
-30 times more energy per acre is generated compared to any conventional vegetable oil seed like corn,palm or rapeseed oil
– can grow 20 times faster than the conventional oil seeds.
– They do not affect fresh water resources
– Can be produced using ocean and waste water.
– They are biodegradable and therefore harmless to the environment if spilled.
On the flip side,the difficult part is growing algae in a controlled and efficient manner to produce vegetable oils with high selectivity. Seeking to find solutions to this problem,very interesting ‘cutting edge research’ using genomic and proteomic technologies is being carried out to understand molecular switches responsible for enhanced oil production.

One finds quite a lot of innovative research publications in basic science and technology of utilization of Algae to make bio-fuel. I will mention here only one example of an interesting research which will be of great value in the near future. At MIT,under the leadership of Prof Isaac Berzin,a very innovative and almost revolutionary concept was developed.The idea of Prof Berzin is amazingly simple. Carbon dioxide from a power plant at MIT was bubbled through an algae soup exposed to sunlight. The algae soup absorbs close to 80% of Carbon dioxide and converts it into vegetable oil,which can be easily transformed to Biodiesel. If commercialed,this will mitigate both problems in one shot – that is the energy problem and the and green house gas emission problem which is the cause of global warming.(All of us are aware that increasing levels of Carbon dioxide emission is responsible for global warming).
Today USA is leading from the front in developing these technologies and have set themselves an ambitious target to substitute 20% of gasoline with biodiesel made from algae by 2017. And this goal seems perfectly achievable given the kind of push the project is receiving through Federal grants as well as partnerships with private enterprises.
I am sure the coming decade will be highly exciting in terms of scientific and technological landmarks in the energy sector.

In the next post I will describe certain interesting developments in the field of Solar Power.

Published in: on March 19, 2009 at 2:26 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Hey great article! I have recently wrote an article that discusses the progress made by two algae bio fuel companies. Check it out! New Technology goes through three stages:
    First it is ridiculed by those ignorant of its potential
    Next, it is subverted by those threatened by its potential
    Finally, it is considered self-evident.
    This article is in response to an Oil Drum article linked below.
    Take a look at the article to get a good understanding on how I shaped my response.
    The Oil Drum article may have been relevant when published back in may of 2009 but many of these limitations have and will be overcome by advances in technology, along with increases in private and public investments.  With global investment in carbon capturing in the billions, the race has been set to see which companies can emerge as technology leaders.  The companies that do succeed will only realize success when they integrate their technologies with one another to create a superior technology.  These integrations will help push the industry forward and eventually will create a paradigm shift in carbon capturing. 
    The scenario for success I just explained, closely resembles Origin Oil and MBD Energy’s current relationship.  Many are ignorant and threatened by the potential of capturing carbon to produce biofuel, they simply say “It can not be done.”   Step one and two regarding phases of new technology complete.  The oil drum article vaguely communicated to readers the failure of Green Fuel and with Green Fuel’s failure tried to subvert their audience into believing if one fails, they all fail!  This notion that if one fails all fails holds very little weight.  Present day knowledge and opportunities to turn carbon into a viable fuel source has become self evident.  
    When a technology becomes self evident it has reached it’s final stage, commercialization.  This stage has been evolving the past year with major R&D projects being funded by the largest publicly traded oil companies in the world.  Bp, Shell, Royal Dutch and the biggest investor of them all Exxon Mobil are all in the race.  The big boys now consider these technologies self evident and see the need to invest in order to secure their competitive advantage amongst one another.  It is only a matter of time before we see the first industrial scale carbon capturing plant that can produce algae as a biofuel.  In my opinion MBD Energy and Origin Oil, through the integration of their technologies, will be the first to achieve this amazing feat.
    Origin Oil’s market strategy is unique because they look to integrate their technologies with other thriving companies to establish a competitive advantage.  They were voted by top 30 most transformative technologies in 2010. Their  portfolio consisting of 10 patent pending technologies are crucial to their success and are regarded to as industry game changers. CEO Riggs Eckleberry and CTO Dr. Brian Goodall combine for over 50 years of networking and industry experience. Origin Oil’s ability to create synergy between them selves and existing biofuel companies by integrating technologies will serve them well in the long run. This unique market entry strategy will drive their industry growth and will enable them to become industry leaders in technology innovation and integration.

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