The Algae Problems

December 22, 2008 | 16 Comments

Lots of email comes commenting on a shortage of algae news. One prime reason is that most research is privately done so making whatever information that could be disclosed -limited and if escaped, subject to liability. We will only get what companies want out for quite some time to come. Next is the field is made up of four matters that pose challenges for economic development. These we can cover and if you’ve an interest from curiosity to investment, these are the things you want to have in mind.

The first is algae have a predisposition to make carbohydrates such as starches and sugars when well fed. Or they are predisposed to make the desirable oils when food is short. As you realize growth and speed is key to making well-fed algae rapidly producing cheap to extract oil the goal. The challenge is to alter the genetics to coax or program the algae into making oil when well fed rather than carbohydrates. The challenge is well understood and worldwide, uncounted interests are aggressively hunting for solutions.

We can expect some false starts; premature announcements and other bumps in the road but without doubt eventually the solutions will someday be at hand. There are thousands of algae species, varieties and strains to catalog, examine and experiment with to seek optimal production. It is possible now to make huge quantities of algae for secondary biological fermentation for ethanol, but the economics are little better if any, likely worse perhaps, than going with corn. Growing for oil is much better as we’ll see.

Mass production of algae depends on another aspect of algae’s nature. Good growth requires a calm environment. Algae don’t grow or reproduce well when agitated. The currently known genetic codes like still waters. Current algae production is from slow quiet growth systems, which are batch type, while big production will likely need continuous, continuous looping or cycling systems. Even the bubbling of CO2 for food and introducing other nutrients is an agitation that disrupts or over saturates the water based growth media adversely affecting algae growth.

The growth systems or handling issue may well also find a solution in genetics. But short term, ideas on systems that work at commercial volumes are quiet ponds with just a slight bit of propulsion in an effort to stir algae so that more individuals get energy from the light source.

The light source needs to be distributed to algae cultures as evenly and thoroughly as possible to make the culture vessels economically viable. From ponds to tubes many ideas are being explored and inevitably the probability is that some algae strains will react better to some systems than others. A good strain that can tolerate or even excel in moving water will need more innovation than seen today. One can confidently say that somewhere experiments are underway with everything from light pipes, fiber optics at the most sophisticated to ponds at the simplest. What works in the end will depend on a multitude of factors. Above all, the system design has to be cost effective. The energy might be free sunlight but the cost to distribute it deep into an algae culture isn’t yet fully known.

Lastly, algae for all their preferences are tough critters. The outer cell wall is a defense in nature that has improved for epochs in the hundreds of millions of years. Algae have seen nearly every creature ever to live on earth and outlived them all. They do protect themselves well. The tough cell wall has to be cracked open to extract either the oil or carbohydrates. Getting the product out is so far, an energy expensive process. Lots of ideas are available, so when an independent test of a process occurs with a worthy result it will get a posting here. Today, I’m still waiting. Hypersonic, microwave and lots of technological solutions are hinted at, plain old cooking, and some simple chemical solutions are in research. It’s fair to expect that several methods will prove worthwhile if the preceding challenges are met at low cost.

The last is the combined cost of the solutions. Over the coming months and years a variety of combinations of solutions will get trials. But in the end, to design specific applications that are economical today with resources at hand are ponds whose product is chemically released. It’s not economically viable even at $147 crude, yet.

The great solution(s) may be genetically designed species that form oil when fed well, enjoys being thrashed about, has an easy to crack cell wall (a conundrum), and the oil product itself is a desirable and cheaply refined source of fuel and chemical feedstock. The we’ll need engineering skill to design systems that are low in cost that can be set up across a wide range of environments and yield a low cost product.

At the end the algae oil is the goal. Today many species are identified producing oil that is every bit as desirable as the best crude oils. Much of the demand for petroleum could be met with algae oil products. But not all, from asphalt at the heaviest to methane at the lightest several petroleum products are simply easy and low cost refining efforts that remain out of reach for algae.

For the biggest part of the energy and fuel demand algae can answer when the science gets far enough into the challenges. The main challenge is a gallon of algae oil at or less than one dollar. It’s coming.


16 Comments so far

  1. what products are made with crude oil | Digg hot tags on December 24, 2008 5:08 AM

    […] Vote The Algae Problems […]

  2. oil and water science experiments | Digg hot tags on December 26, 2008 3:19 PM

    […] Vote The Algae Problems […]

  3. A Clue From Medicine Research to Break Into Algae? | New Energy and Fuel on December 31, 2008 1:17 AM

    […] From last Monday’s post you will recall that algae pose some counter solution issues. They need toughened up to be handled and tolerate more agitation while not becoming even more problematic to extract the oil products. This infectious disease research just might trigger a great idea in algae oil production research. […]

  4. Oilgae on January 3, 2009 12:51 AM

    Thanks for a detailed article…it sheds light on a number of interesting points re algae fuel.

    “The great solution(s) may be genetically designed species that form oil when fed well, enjoys being thrashed about, has an easy to crack cell wall (a conundrum), and the oil product itself is a desirable and cheaply refined source of fuel and chemical feedstock”

    You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the three aspects – forming lots of oil, enjoy being agitated, can be easily cracked…I’d guess there are a few more aspects, but the ones you have noted are important.

    However, I’m not sure if the whole thing needs to come about only through the genetic manipulation route. Sure, there are some companies such as Sapphire Energy that put a lot of emphasis on the GM route, but there could be a few other options of interest as well – for instance, getting ethanol from algae instead of oil (so you need more of carbohydrate algae), or even going through the thermochemical (gasification / FT) route – in which case it probably does not matter what strain the algae is!

    I think overall that these are early days for the algae energy industry, and a couple of years later, we might be seeing successful companies following quite different routes to get there

    I represent Oilgae ( ), and we are a premier online resource for information and interaction for the energy from algae industry. We have also come out with a comprehensive report recently on the algae energy industry (more on that here – )

    Thanks once again for a useful post, and here’s wishing you a prosperous 2009!

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