Algae Answers the Call

October 16, 2007 | 2 Comments

Its time to get ready for a strong set of stories and information articles proposing that algae will be the crude oil of the future. There are some strong indicators that the algae industry my have the strongest set of resources for displacing crude oil as the prime source of high density fuel sources.

Leading the prospects for a transition is that algae can grow to contain as much as 30% of their biomass in the form of vegetable oils. Some companies are saying that they offer algae strains that go up to 50% and the strains can be chosen based on the buyers choice of producing say jet or diesel fuel. Other companies are saying their strains produce react able oil that can be refined into your choice of fuels. There are a lot of energy possibilities on the way.

Algae offer other advantages. They can be harvested, processes and stored easily in liquid form and stay biodegradable eliminating the pollution and special handling that petrochemical fuels require. They produce oil naturally at or near specifications for fuel and other petrochemical feedstocks for plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Most noteworthy is that the comparisons with other plant sources such as sugar cane, sugar beets and corn that grow once per year while needing fertilizer and pesticides. Algae grows continuously in most any water be it fresh, waste water, and even seawater.

Algae research is further along than many would suspect. The US Department of Energy had spent $25 million at the National Renewable Energy Lab known as the “Aquatic Species Program” and Japan topped that with $117 million. Both research groups folded in the cheap oil of period of the 1990s.

Algae systems come in two types. The open pond that is a pool open to the air that collects the CO2 and sunlight at the price of evaporation with a really low start up capitalization and closed systems where the water laden with algae is strictly controlled and production is maximized with a much higher capital cost.

Numbers are wildly variable for net production with lows in the 5000 gallons of fuel per acre exposed to sunlight up to 20,000 gallons in open ponds. The napkin numbers are 3.785 liters per gallon*34.92 standardized mega joules = 132.17 mega joules per gallon. That times 20k gets you 2,643,400 mega joules per acre/4,046.86 for meters2 thus 653.2 mega joules per square meter annually or 1.7896 per day.

Check this video of Glen Kertz the CEO of Valcent Products who shows and tells quite a lot but doesn’t quite quote a per acre gallon yield:

This is the Valcent home link:

You might notice that Mr Kertz is addressing many of the concerns of this article by Michael Briggs from The University of New Hampshire revised in August of 2004. It remains relavent today even as some problems are getting resolved and covers other topics too:

With that flashback of a little over 3 years ago in mind the title seems rather apt after all. The problems will still be in the capital costs and the operating expenses. But if anything is clear now, its that research has closed up the gap putting much more promise in the little plant called algae.


2 Comments so far

  1. Rob McMillin on October 16, 2007 6:15 PM

    Re these production rates he cites, this:

    I am not aware of any work in this field done by Prof. Briggs at U. New Hampshire, outside from an old website that quotes the Aquatic Species Program Close Out Report. There is no basis for the projections he makes for very high biodiesel production rates.

  2. Brian Westenhaus on October 16, 2007 10:38 PM

    Rob is right. Prof. Briggs’ article sets out to show and prognosticate data circa 2004 and this post serves to compare that with the coming blast of news about algae. If you look at the napkin numbers it is apparent something is amiss. On the other hand I’m not labeling anyone. Algae is here to stay for some time and has quite a long way to go in the management of the plant’s physiology that would impact the yield of whatever. But some of the numbers are just outlandish

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