Biodiesel is usually made by combining methanol and lye with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. It can be blended with ordinary diesel to reduce vehicle emissions or used in its pure form. And it can even be transformed into a kerosene-like jet fuel. Even if the United States were to devote its entire annual crop of soybeans to producing biodiesel, it would barely make a dent.
But no nation would ever do that, because food production is still the No. Algae, on the other hand, need not present such a conflict. You can cultivate algae in three ways, the easiest of which employs shallow ponds with paddle wheels that constantly mix the water. Large tracts of desert might be the ideal place to grow algae as long as enough water and the proper nutrients can be secured. Such cultivation is practiced in several areas of the world, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, China, and parts of Europe, mostly using otherwise undesirable land and saline water or brackish groundwater.
But algae have another neat attribute. Using emissions to grow algae can thus cut down on the release of this worrisome greenhouse gas while producing the oils that are so sorely needed for biodiesel. After the oils have been extracted, the remaining residue can be burned to generate heat and power, or it can be turned into animal feed or nutritional supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Not bad for simple pond scum.
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One early research project, begun in , was the U. Researchers screened more than strains of algae for robustness and the ability to produce oil. These investigators eventually culled their collection to the most promising species. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those cultures survived, necessitating our recent trips back into the field.
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During the later years of the Aquatic Species Program, molecular biologists isolated key enzymes in algae and attempted to genetically modify some of them to produce more oil. Other researchers worked on cultivation techniques, constructing what they dubbed the Outdoor Test Facility, in Roswell, N. There, the growth rate of the algae was sufficient to produce more than L of oil per hectare—very heartening news.
Less heartening, though, was the observation that faster-growing wild strains with lower oil concentrations often ended up outcompeting the species being cultivated. As expensive as gasoline and diesel seem at the pump, they cost less than almost any liquid you can buy at the store. So to compete with petroleum, every step in the conversion of algae to fuel has to be done very cheaply. It may look like pea soup, but that suspension consists mostly of water, with perhaps only 1 gram of algae in each liter.
The technology of dewatering has improved, and the cost has come down since the Aquatic Species Program ended, but not nearly enough. Other steps in the conversion remain pricey, too. Recent advances in technology, however, might soon change this rather gloomy economic picture.
For example, we can now grow thousands of cultures simultaneously at the microliter scale using advanced liquid-handling devices and robotics. Instruments can isolate single oil-filled cells from their cultures based on how the cells fluoresce. With our improved understanding of flow dynamics, we can engineer ponds and bioreactors that require the least amount of energy to mix. And new polymers that are both stronger and cheaper can withstand months of punishing sunlight, enabling more affordable photobioreactors.
What makes us most optimistic is the renewed financial support for developing this technology. The U. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was among the first to begin funding research groups to work on the cost-effective conversion of algal oils to jet fuel. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research also issued a number of grants to academic and national labs to carry out such research.
Private investment is substantial, too. A few start-ups stand out in this regard. Although their products are unlikely to be able to compete with conventional fuels anytime soon, the Defense Energy Support Center recently announced that it is prepared to buy more than 2. This guaranteed market should provide near-term revenue for such companies, allowing them to improve their processes and reduce costs. But before that happens, regulators will need to explore the environmental impact of scaling up algae production.
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We and others will have to evaluate the carbon footprint of these operations, as well as their water and nutrient demands. Another crucial question concerns what ecosystem changes might result from modifications to the land, the evaporation of huge amounts of water, and the disposal of leftover salty brines. Lastly, the cultivation of nonnative algal species presents an unknown risk to our aquatic environments.
Government agencies will need to weigh the potential benefits of factors such as adding jobs in rural areas and energy security against any environmental consequences. Clearly, many obstacles still stand in the way of widespread commercialization, but so far none of these issues strikes us as insurmountable.
To our eyes, anyway, the future of these little green cells looks positively golden. Philip T. Photo: Business Wire. Growing Oil: Algae need not be grown in open ponds. Photobioreactors are another option for large-scale cultivation.
These containers come in many shapes and sizes, including arrays of clear tubes, flat panels sandwiching a thin layer of growth medium, or plastic bags, which can be arrayed vertically [above], laid out horizontally along the ground, or suspended in cooling water. The Navy uses a lot of petroleum-based fuel. This is why they were hell bent on spending taxpayer money on idiotic biofuels projects over the past 8 years.
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Not only net cost per gallon, but shelf-life issues regarding destabilization or separation during storage and transport are obstacles that can limit the viability of bio fuels for military requirements. Better to go back to sailing ships, but then how would jets avoid the sails on the aircraft carriers?
There have been close calls. At least they seem to be partially recognizing the lack of green exemptions from the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Just have congress pass a law repealing the law of physics and thermodynamics Problem solved. I know, lets create a 3-D matrix of growing areas interspersed with LED lighting! That way the ground footprint can be arbitrarily small …. Large-scale production of biofuels from algae may cause water pollution.
Except instead of may read would. In all of my experience with algae, i have noted that it is very wet, as a rule. And once removed from water, it is incredibly stinky. And saltwater algae drying out in the sun is a sort of fetid stink monster with few peers. I think this must be why they wanted to do it in the desert. Hey, has anyone done an environmental impact study of the effect of pumping huge amounts of seawater to ponds in a desert?
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Or the cost? One of the better ideas was to grow biofuel algae in ponds that you were already using for aquaculture, Basically, you raise fish catfish, for example and scoop the algae off of the top or filter it out with low-pressure pumps that are already aerating the ponds. The fish output fertilizer and raise CO2 levels in the water, making the algae grow a lot faster. With a small processing plant, you could run the whole thing off of the algae biofuels instead of paying for energy to run the pumps.
Not something you could use for large-scale fuel production, though.