Algae Energy- an acceptable compromise between Big Oil and the Planet?

Most electrical and computer engineers have often heard about solar, wind and even fusion energy being the holy grail of clean energy. These are all important avenues of research and essential for a sustainable future but one promising energy source that people hear less about is Algae Fuel aka Bio Fuel 3.0.
By now it is universally agreed that the first generation of biofuels derived from food crops such as corn ethanol was a disaster environmentally. Not only did these initiatives lead to food scarcity and deforestation in developing countries but it also put more CO2 into the atmosphere compared to traditional fuels when examined against the entire production cycle. Some of these issues were addressed when companies came out with the second generation bio fuels made from nonedible plant material which were only marginally better.
Enter the third generation of biofuels primarily derived from various types of Algae. Algae is actually a very general term for a very large and diverse group of organisms that have chlorophyll as the primary pigment for photosynthesis and but lack stems, roots and leaves. Like normal plants algae consume carbon dioxide, sunlight and water to create oxygen and energy which is stored in the form of bio-oils within the algae cells. However unlike the previous bio-fuel sources algae
• Is fast growing with some strains having as little as 10 days harvest cycle
• Does not compete for land with food sources and can be grown in harsh environments such as deserts
• Does not require clean water and can be grown in salt water or even sewage water
• Contains more than 50% of their biomass as bio-oil. The per unit area yield of oil from algae is 20 times higher than the next highest yielding crop- oil palm.

ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other major oil companies have all invested in pilot projects to further develop algae fuels for the future. These companies recognize the obvious synergies of producing and utilizing bio-fuels with existing production and processing infrastructure. ExxonMobil has been working with Dr. Craig Venture’s Synthetic Genomics since 2009 in a $300million deal to create new strains of algae that can produce more bio oils per cell. Meanwhile Chevron is working with Solazyme to scale up and create an industrial process to derive biodiesel from algae in large quantities. When producing Bio-Fuels oil companies don’t have to choose between shareholder interest and the environment because although the biofuel burned will release carbon dioxide, note that we are effectively reusing carbon dioxide to grow the algae and there is major efficiency there when compared to fossil fuels.

How it works?

To extract energy from algae we consider 2 main processes- cultivation of algae in large enough quantities and extraction of bio oils from the biomass in a cost effective manner. Algae cultivation is predominantly done in either closed-loop bioreactors or open ponds with each having their own pros and cons. The cultivated biomass is then processed at a high temperature and pressure using a process called hydrothermal liquefaction to obtain a product similar to crude oil which can further be refined into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

How much will it cost?

As of 15th June 2015, crude oil costs about $2/ gallon and bio crude (crude equivalent derived from algae) is estimated between $3 and $30. Obviously this is a pretty wide spread and even the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts or NAABB estimates the cost per gallon to be $7.5 which far higher than current crude costs. So what’s the point? Do we have to wait for some technological breakthrough? Maybe not.

Algae Energy Ecosystem

The best way to commercialize Algae based bio fuels without depending on improved technology is by creating an ecosystem that delivers much more benefit overall, both economically and environmentally when considering the entire production and utilization cycle. This can be done by utilizing carbon dioxide and waste water generated by industry and urban cities and by extracting valuable nutrients from the algal biomass. Algae farms could be located near factories that need to dispose of excess carbon dioxide and polluted water which are both growth stimulants for algae. If and ever cap and trade is implemented properly it would make even more economic sense. We keep hearing about the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acid supplements derived from fish oil. Actually the fish have their natural algae diet to thank for their high omega 3 content. Extracting pharmaceuticals from the algal biomass such as omega fat 3 molecules is a lucrative commercialization strategy as demonstrated by companies such as Arora Algae. Further, the processed algal biomass can then be sold as fertilizers for traditional agriculture. Combine all these income streams and voila you can now sell biofuels at a competitive cost to fossil fuels while substantially reducing greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

While there are still many major challenges in scaling up algae based bio fuel production in order to make a substantial impact on climate change, the research is very promising. Especially bio-engineering algae strains could make bio-fuels cheaper than fossil fuels by increasing the bio-oils content and making it easier to extract from the algae cells. No one can be certain about the future of algae fuels but most reasonable people agree that climate change is real. That means we as a race have a duty to create a sustainable growth model for future generations and that includes worrying about and exploring promising technologies such as algae fuels. At least until Elon Musk takes us to Mars!

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