Over the last year or so I have spoken about different types of bio-fuels and their sources. The most commonly discussed in the media has been ethanol from corn because of the dilemma of using lots of water to turn a food source into a fuel to power vehicles. Like range anxiety in an electric car, the media and others were concerned about running out of one of the resources (water) by using too much in the ethanol production process.
One other source of biofuel is algae. This plant is actually quite a useful source – it can soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into a biofuel thus reducing greenhouse gases and providing a green power source. 100s of millions of years ago, algae grew in vast quantities thanks to a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. As the atmosphere changed, the algae died and was buried under layers of dust that became rock. The ensuring pressure over millions of years converted the dead algae into oil. The world loves oil, however algae is the nerd sitting in a corner at a prom trying to get a dance.
Algae are one of the fastest growing plants on the planet and they thrive off carbon dioxide so some companies are using them in exhaust systems at factories. Scientists reckon that one gallon of algae based fuel will remove 13-14 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The plants remove the pollutants and collect this as energy in the form of carbohydrates. Then they can be processed to create biofuels and the waste from this process can be turned into animal feeds.
Sounds simple – maybe too simple as many initial developments are now being parked, which is a shame with the current desire by Governments the world over to kill off the internal combustion engine and replace them with electric motors. What could be the most efficient and ecological solution to powered transportation is under attack.
Back in 2008 when I started podcasting, I featured Sapphire as a game changer and a future fuel delivery service. At that time, the company based in California, had plans to produce a million gallons of algae fuel by 2011 to be sold for use by biodiesel vehicles and aircraft. With backing from the Rockefellers, the business plan was to increase this to 1 billion gallons by 2020. In 2008 I pointed out that the main problem the company had, as well as many other start-ups in the US, was that the Government didn’t consider the fuel as a biofuel!
Sapphire were well on the way to achieving their goals, Continental Airlines flew two tests with a Boeing 737 with algae based jet fuel mixed by UOP and achieved better economy as well as having no major problems (thankfully). Sapphire had also estimated that they used significantly less energy and water to refine their fuels, thus making savings in 3 important areas.
However despite the gains and technological advances, several issues conspired to bring down Sapphire and other developers. The first was that the price of oil plummeted – remember the days when it was $150 per barrel? In the past 7 years the price has dropped to be 30% of its peak.
Secondly, alongside the price of oil, was the ability to upscale – and more importantly the cost of doing so. We hear a lot about the concept of carbon capture and sequestration – especially in Australia where the politicians once saw it as a cash cow for a while by selling underground space in the deserts. Algae completely removes the need for the storage area because it can consume the carbon dioxide captured as it arrives – sure you might need holding tanks, but think of it, you could have vast areas of algae cultivation that are not offensive to the eye or even local algae refineries that produce no pollution – especially if the fuel is piped to local businesses for consumption.
However, with a high oil price, investment in new tech was easy, with a lower price per barrel though that investment disappears. Had things stayed as they were 10 years ago, we would have seen algae as a fuel source being sold at every service station today. Many areas could be converted to grow algae – especially around factories or areas of natural beauty that are today being considered for open cast coal mining.
Murdoch University, Western Australia
Thankfully there are still groups looking at the research and development of algae for a wide variety of uses, including biofuels. One such is the Algae R&D Centre at Murdoch University. The researchers have been quoted as saying that algae will grow in areas where corn and other food stocks won’t – even in arid areas as they do not need huge amounts of water to grow. The research has been so successful that with several partners they have built a test plant in Karratha, 1,500kms north of Perth in Western Australia. This facility is now starting a new life as a commercial entity.
Solazyme of San Francisco were another company developing fuels to support vehicles and planes from algae. They were also producing raw materials for cosmetics and foodstuffs that could reduce the need for other natural oils. This would have the effect of saving rain forest in Asia that is being torn down for palm oil sales. However, they sold the cosmetics and foodstuffs business to Terravia (who in August filed for Chapter 11 protection whilst they sold themselves to a Dutch food company).
Now concentrating on algae for industrial oils and fuels, Solazyme are selling several fuels:
– SolaDiesel BD made entirely from algae and requires no engine modifications.
– SolaDiesel RD which is a renewable diesel fuel that they say is “chemically indistinguishable from carbon-based diesels”.
– SolaJet an aircraft fuel
When the price of oil was high, the oil companies weren’t sitting back and watching from the sidelines – some were hard at it to get a jump start on the market. ExxonMobil for example set up a joint venture with Synthetic Genomics Inc to test their theories. However, the desire to innovate was lost with the collapse of the oil price and subsequent profits.
I think the tide must turn again – I have written in a recent post that I think Governments around the world are foolish to ban petrol and diesel cars without considering the consequences. Forcing everyone to electric is a poor decision as the world is not geared up enough to produce vast quantities of ecologically sound electricity – thanks in part to the same Governments not investing in the technology or infrastructure.
Algae (and other biofuels from waste) are clearly an option – what could be better than a plant that cleans the environment whilst growing and then later when processed. Its a win-win situation that Mother Nature has given us – yet we are not taking advantage of it.