Algae as a Biofuel

Recently a politician informed me of an energy source I was completely unaware of, algae as a biofuel. I did some more research on it and was amazed to find how much more potential algae has other than any other crop because of it’s amazing growth rate and, as a result, much lower cost to produce, even with its problems. Why then is this crop getting so little attention when it alone can replace all of our imports of oil for transportation and heating…? Scott H., Pen Argyl, PA

According to American Heritage Dictionary, Alga (plural, “algae”) is: “Any of various chiefly aquatic, eukaryotic, photosynthetic organisms, ranging in size from single-celled forms to the giant kelp. Algae were once considered to be plants but are now classified separately because they lack true roots, stems, leaves, and embryos. And “fungus” (plural, “fungi”) is defined as: “Any of numerous eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Fungi, which lack chlorophyll and vascular tissue and range in form from a single cell to a body mass of branched filamentous hyphae that often produce specialized fruiting bodies. The kingdom includes the yeasts, molds, smuts, and mushrooms.” And Scott, you are right that they hold promise for ethanol, butanol, biodiesels and synthetic oils. Several companies and many universities are deep into the drive to commercialize algae and fungi to produce renewable fuels. There is no conspiracy here; we have a steep learning curve not only to identify correct strains and make them more robust, but to ensure they can do so at a scale of production that is meaningful and economic. No easy task. In some recent articles on the company ‘GreenFuel,’ “Using technology licensed from a NASA project, GreenFuel builds bioreactors — in the shape of three-meter-high glass tubes fashioned as a triangle — to grow algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel. GreenFuel’s plan is to get the carbon dioxide needed for the process by setting up shop next to big CO2 producers like factories. This way, instead of releasing the harmful greenhouse gas into the air, it feeds the algae. In the carbon dioxide’s place, oxygen is released as a byproduct of the photosynthesis. Because the factories could be in different climates, the strain of microalgae chosen, in addition to being cost-effective, must be able to thrive in many different types of conditions. Biodiesel is the most likely form the algae-produced fuel will take, but the process could also produce ethanol through a fermentation process.” In another article, “Veridium Corp has announced its patent-pending technology for the conversion of exhaust carbon dioxide from the fermentation stage of ethanol production facilities back into new ethanol and biodiesel. Veridium’s bioreactor uses an iron-loving blue-green algae species discovered thriving in a hot stream at Yellowstone National Park. The Viridium BioStarch Recirculation System routes exhaust carbon dioxide from the fermentation stage of the ethanol production process through the bioreactor, where it is consumed by algae that are comprised of about 94% starch and about 6% oil. Presumably, the starch byproduct can be reclaimed for ethanol fermentation and the oil for biodiesel production.” See link below. (Veridium Corp is a subsidiary of GreenShift.) In a recently published “Technology Review” article (Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol, July 2006), the author highlights the “fungus” work by Iogen: “In 2004, Iogen, a Canadian biotechnology company based in Ottawa, began selling modest amounts of cellulosic ethanol, made using common wheat straw as feedstock and a tropical fungus genetically enhanced to hyperproduce its cellulose-digesting enzymes. But Iogen estimates that its first full-scale commercial plant, for which it hopes to break ground in 2007, will cost $300 million — five times the cost of a conventional corn-fed ethanol facility of similar size.” Mississippi State University has an active program researching bio-oils and biodiesels from algae, and many other universities have published papers in this field. By 2025, less than 20 years from now, we will have several forms of algae and fungi producing all kinds of biofuels in the commercial markets, and hundreds of others poised to enter the market, not only for fuels but for coproducts — from glues and resins, building and fiber materials, and chemicals — not far from what we now do to manufacture vaccines and drugs today. — Scott Sklar Scott Sklar is President of The Stella Group in Washington, DC, a distributed energy marketing and policy firm. Scott, co-author of “A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy,” uses solar technologies for heating and power at his home in Virginia.
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Scott, founder and president of The Stella Group, Ltd., in Washington, DC, is the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and serves on the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and The Solar Foundation. The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies using renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage. Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching two unique interdisciplinary courses on sustainable energy, and is an Affiliated Professor of CATIE, the graduate university based in Costa Rica. . On June 19, 2014, Scott Sklar was awarded the prestigious The Charles Greely Abbot Award by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and on April 26, 2014 was awarded the Green Patriot Award by George Mason University in Virginia.

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