go to http://www.aocs.org! Algaetech International — The Future is NowComplete Algae Monitoring System Visit  cricatalyst.com!Nexus — Leaders in Greenhouse Systems Integration

Algae 101 Part 49

Algae Biofuels — Why Not Now?

September 2, 2012
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Modern societies are built around cheap energy that has been extracted for about 150 years. Our food, shelter, transportation and lifestyles consume massive amounts of fossil fuels. Globally, peak oil occurred in 2008 even though demand for fossil fuels continues to increase. Consequently, fuel prices continue to rise while supplies diminish.

Fossil fuels are composed of algae fossilized under tremendous pressure and heat over 400 million years. Therefore, anything made from fossil fuels can be made from algae. Algae biofuel production is sustainable and occurs in weeks rather than eons.

Clean Energy Biofuels

Clean Energy Biofuels

Algae biofuels are not a practical substitute for coal or natural gas for making electricity. Algae biofuels are excellent substitutes for fossil liquid transportation fuels that include ethanol, biobutanol, hydrogen, gasoline, diesel, aviation gas and jet fuel.

Fossil fuel extraction and use create severe economic and ecological damage. Most of the cheap crude oil has been extracted from easily accessed land areas. Additional supplies lie in difficult terrain such as the artic circle or deep in oceans. Hard to access oil supplies not only drive up oil prices but amplify the probability of spills that create ecological catastrophes. Extracting and burning fossil fuels not only create a heavy carbon load for the atmosphere but also spread damaging black soot particulates on ice packs, cities and homes.

Algae Biodiesel

Algae Biodiesel

Renewable algae liquid transportation fuels provide three critical values for human societies. Unlike fossil fuels that damage human, animal and ecological health, algae biofuels can:

  1. Be produced with abundant rather than fossil resources, thereby saving those resources for our next generations.
  2. Recover, recycle and repurpose waste stream nutrients that not only avoid pollution but regenerate air, soils and water while producing biofuels.
  3. Recycle carbon dioxide, reducing the carbon load while burning clean, with no black soot particulates. (Algae biofuels burn cleanly because they are not fossilized; they are similar to vegetable oil.)

How are algae biofuels made?

Algae are most productive when the cells have access to solar energy. For algae, oil production is strategic and operates as stored energy and access to light. Algae that produce oil tend to move closer to the top of the water column because oil is lighter than water. Algae have no natural propulsion so oil production enables access to more photons that fuel photosynthesis. In natural settings, typically the algae specie on top holds the most oil.

Bioprospecting for Oleaginous Algae Oleaginous Algae

Bioprospecting for Oleaginous Algae Oleaginous Algae

Recent technologies enable producers to scan thousands of algae cells to find those that produce robustly and rapidly while offering high oil content, often around 40%. Some producers stress the algae by withholding a nutrient such as nitrogen, which causes the algae to protect itself by overproducing oil.

Algae Biofuel Production

Algae Biofuel Production

The harvested algae biomass undergoes lysis, which bursts the cells and enables the oils to float to the surface of the liquid. Lysis may occur by solvents such as hexane, enzymes, electrical, mechanical pressure, (press) or lasers. Carbon dioxide acts as the supercritical fluid when pressurized and heated to change its composition from gas to liquid. Supercritical CO2 mixed with the algae extracts nearly 100% of the oil, but the process is more costly than other oil extraction methods.

Producers refine the algae oil to the target biofuel, bioplastics or fine green chemicals. Oil refining uses transesterification on the fatty acid chains. An alcohol such as methanol and an ester compound are mixed to create a reaction to produce a different type of alcohol and ester. The same process is used to make polyester fabrics. Esters are chemical compounds in which an acid has had one of its hydroxy groups – a molecule of hydrogen and oxygen bonded together – replaced by a molecule of oxygen. The transesterification chemical reaction converts algae oil to biodiesel.

Refining Biofuels from Algae Oil

Refining Biofuels from Algae Oil

Considerable R&D focuses on alternative methods to convert algae oil extracts to biofuels including enzymatic conversion, catalytic cracking and sweating algae oil. Enzymatic conversion employs natural or synthetic enzymes to do the transesterification work. Catalytic cracking is used to convert the high-boiling, high-molecular weight hydrocarbon fractions of fossil crude oil petroleum to gasoline and other products. Catalytic cracking produces more gasoline with a higher octane rating than thermal cracking and provides more valuable compounds.

Sweating algae oil offers novel solutions to several challenges. Growers chose an algae species that has no cell wall such as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, or a highly permeable cell wall. Producers use either GMO algae or accelerated evolution to train algae to release oil naturally. The algae culture does not have to be harvested, saving considerable time and cost. Growers “milk” the algae and the oil rises to the top of the water column where a skimmer removes the oil. The algae oil can then be refined using traditional methods. Alternatively, a few algae companies have developed genetically modified species that sweat 90- octane gasoline that requires no conversion.

The residual biomass, mostly protein and carbohydrates, may be used for food, feed, nutrients, fertilizers or many other products. Large-scale algae biofuel production will generate substantial feed for animals and plants. Typically, biofuel protein co-products are insufficiently clean for use in human foods. However, one of the strongest benefits from biofuel production is the R&D lift that will benefit all algae producers.

Why not now?

Algae biofuels make so much sense; several companies have invested millions of dollars trying to develop one or multiple fuels. Those companies have not succeeded because scale-up from the laboratory is far more complex than expected. Total scale for biofuel cultivation requires hundreds and possibly thousands of acres. Construction costs require investment of hundreds of millions of dollars and operational costs are non-trivial. With current technologies, the probability of a large-scale culture crash poses too much risk for most investors.

Each step of the algae-to-biofuels process needs additional refinements including species selection, inoculation, culture growth, culture metrics and automation, harvest, dewatering, oil separation and refinement. Breakthroughs in each of the areas will make algae biofuels production reliable and economically competitive within a few years. Fortunately, excellent minds are working on algae innovations that will benefit all human societies.

More Like This…

HOME Algae Industry Jobs

Copyright ©2010-2012 AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reprint this article in its entirety. Must include copyright statement and live hyperlinks. Contact editorial@algaeindustrymagazine.com. A.I.M. accepts unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, and takes no responsibility for the validity of claims made in submitted editorial.

From The A.I.M. Archives

— Refresh Page for More Choices
Heliae, SCHOTT North America and Arizona State University (ASU) have announced a partnership to bring Heliae’s algae production technology to ASU’s algae testbed facility...
Natural carotenoid specialists Piveg Inc., with production facilities based in Celaya, Central Mexico, has announced immediate availability of natural astaxanthin materia...
Biomass abounds on Earth, as forests, fields, sewage and seaweed. But only a small fraction, mostly human or agricultural waste, can be harvested without posing environme...
Algae.Tec Ltd has received its first purchase order from Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings Limited (RIIHL), in connection with the arrangements announced on Ja...
Solazyme, Inc. has announced results for the fourth quarter and full year ended December 31, 2013. “2013 was a year of great progress for Solazyme as we readied our first...
Valensa International and Contract Biotics have announced that Contract Biotics has started construction of an additional six acres of algae production units at the compa...
Algatechnologies (“Algatech”), Israel, has announced a more than 100% expansion of its production capacity of AstaPure® brand natural astaxanthin. This doubling of capaci...
Algae is being discussed at the heart of EXPO Milano 2015, the international event that has existed since 1851, spawning world shaping themes and icons, such as the Eiffe...
“Proterro has reached its Q1 sugar-production pilot milestones,” CEO Kef Kasdin reported at the recent Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, in Washington, D.C. “In fo...
Algenist®, Solazyme’s anti-aging skincare brand featuring microalgae, has announced its launch in Nordstrom locations throughout the United States. The launch into Nordst...
A team of six University of Calgary researchers has been awarded funding for their project, Cost Effective Biotechnology for Carbon Capture and Re-Use, based on the conce...
Although the use of whole microalgae in animal diets has long been studied, the 
de-fatted biomass of microalgal species, derived from biofuel production research, has on...
A new, outdoor system at the University of Dayton Research Institute has been producing a high volume of algae since its installation in the summer of 2013, even through ...
Four years after the first optimistic calculations, the experimental cultivation of algae at Wageningen University in the Netherlands appears to be meeting expectations. ...
A University of New South Wales (UNSW)-led team of researchers has discovered how algae that survive in very low levels of light are able to switch on and off a weird qua...
Jamie Radford writes in the Illawarra Mercury that Pia Winberg, from the University of Wollongong, believes that the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia (NSW) is in...
Starting in the early 70s, agencies in the former USSR invested more than 20,000 person-years of research and development to produce Bio-Algae Concentrates (BAC) that hel...
Steven Mufson reports for the Washington Post that Algenol Biofuels estimates hackers have attempted to break into its computers 39 million times in four months this year...