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Algae as a Source for Biofuels

Algae the savior for Biofuel production

Academic researchers, start-up energy companies and giant petroleum producers are all looking at relatives of common pond scum as a potential source for fuels. They are all looking for green replacements for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel that do not require the use of food crops or food cropland. As the price of fuel and food continues to increase, their research on developing biofuels from algae becomes more valuable.

Simple to grow, quality land not required

Algae are simple plants that naturally produce a vegetable oil that can be extracted and converted to biofuels. Algae are simple to grow. Production does not require the use of high quality agricultural land that is better suited to the production of food. Unfortunately, current techniques for growth and fuel production are expensive, resulting in total production costs of more than $20 per gallon.

High Density Aquaculture

Algae can be grown in ponds, ocean going pens, and even in bioreactors. They have a much higher oil density than conventional oil crops. This is because oil from conventional crops like rape, palm or soy is typically extracted from seeds. The vegetable oil from algae is extracted from the entire plant mass. This results in as much as 15 times as much oil produced for a given area of production.

Fresh water not needed

Cellana, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and HR Biopetroleum, is investigating the use of marine microalgae to produce vegetable oil based fuels. They are looking at a variety of naturally occurring plants to see which variety provides the best combination of speed of growth and oil production. Marine production would allow fuel production without consuming increasingly scarce fresh water.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide, Producing Oxygen - Algae feeds on carbon!

Another advantage of alga cultivation is that it can serve as a way to actively recycle carbon dioxide. All plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, convert it to plant material and produce oxygen. Algae vats can have CO2 bubbled into them at a controlled rate to optimize the conversion process. That cannot be done in a cornfield.

Effluent treatment another possibility

Carbon dioxide is not the only thing that can be recycled during algae cultivation. Researchers at Old Dominion University are working on a project to use municipal sewage sludge as a growth medium. This will help to remove nitrogen, phosphorus and CO2 from the effluent from the treatment facility. This treatment would share the cost of production, lowering the cost of the fuel produced.

Future Energy Developments

There are a wide variety of efforts underway to increase the efficiency of every stage of the fuel production process. A company in the Netherlands is working on an electrical extraction technique to remove the vegetable oil from algae paste. Companies and universities are looking for alga species that provides the optimum growth rate and high vegetable oil production rates.

Valuable By-products

Another area of research concerns the disposal of biomass remaining from the oil extraction process. A company in Texas is working on a process to convert a low-oil content algae feedstock into biocrude which could be processed at current oil refineries. This cellulose rich by-product could also be used to feed ethanol production units.

As food and fuel prices continue to rise, the need for alternatives to gasoline, ethanol and diesel will become more important. The continuing research and development effort on using alga production to feed various biofuel processes could provide a valuable alternative source for environmentally friendly fuels.


Submitted by SuperGreenMe on Oct 31, 2008