Ever wonder what jet engines will run on when petroleum becomes scarce or too expensive? Try microalgae. Some would call it pond scum.
Rich in fats, oils, sugars, proteins, carbohydrates and other “functional bioactive compounds,” microalgae thrives on sunshine in polluted and salty water. Or it can be farmed. Given that it consumes vast quantities of CO2, it was originally eyed for CO2 sequestration, according to Tom Byrne, secretary of the Algal Biomass Organization, which is promoting the use of Microalgae in biofuels.
“It’s a new industry. A lot of things are happening and being tried. Biofuels (from Algae) are still five years away, but it could be a serious piece of the energy puzzle,” says Byrne. “Arizona could provide 40-60 billion gallons a year. It has the sunshine and the nutrients and you can grow it in the available not in land use to grow corn, barley and wheat. Algae isn’t table top food.”
The idea of algae to energy is not new. The Dept. of Energy (DOE) conducted research into algae in the Aquatic Species Program as an energy source from 1978 when DOE was created to 1995 when finding was cut. The original research was on hydrogen, but then switched to biofuels. A 1998 “closeout report” published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory summarized nearly two decades of algal research.
The primary technical challenge today is harvesting it economically, according to Bryne. Presently, a flocculate is added to on the water’s surface where the algae grows. That forces it to sink to the bottom where it is captured in weir tanks. Then it’s put through a press to reduce its water content from 87% to 45%.
Byrne envisions commercial ventures by next year, but it won’t be jet fuel.
“There will be a number commercially viable ventures next year for cattle aquaculture (feed),” he said, adding that jet fuel will follow in a few years as microalgal standards for it are developed. Indeed Boeing and Air New Zealand are among the ABO’s biggest sponsors. Boeing has studied algae in depth.
“With the potential for algae providing 10,000 gallons per acre a year85 billion gallons of bio-jet could be produced on a landmass to the size of the U.S. state of Maryland,” Boeing concluded in a 2007 report on alternate fuels. Indeed, algae could conceivably yield 150-300 times more oil than soybeans on a kilogram per hectare basis. The aircraft company sees algae as a blend with other biofuels.
But the there are several angel-funded startups driving its development, too, according to Byrne. The skills needed to develop microalgae are biologists, botanists, physicists and chemical engineers.
The Dept. of Energy conducted research into algae in the Aquatic Species Program as an energy source from 1978 when it was created until 1995 when finding was cut. The original research was on algae producing hydrogen, but then DOE switched to biofuels. A “closeout report” published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 1998 summarized nearly two decades of algal research.
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