Small Scale Algae—An Alternate Vision
June 7, 2011
ost algae production is industrial in scale. Take MBD Energy’s carbon capture project, designed to attack the vast CO2 emissions of Australia’s brown coal power plants. Each power plant emits ten million tons of CO2 per year. At two tons of CO2 to produce one ton of algae, that’s five million tons of algae per year, per plant. That also means billions of cubic meters of water. (Thankfully, algae grow well in brackish or wastewater.)
That’s Big Algae.
Refining Requires Scale
Strategic algae buyers are looking for volume. Newly-public Solazyme is committed to delivering a half-million gallons of renewable fuels this year to the US Department of Defense, a huge production increase for our industry. Refining that much algae oil requires industrial scale. Standard oil refineries require 10,000 barrels a day to operate.
While capital is rightly pouring into gigantic projects that we need to begin to compete with oil and gas, there is a parallel business model that takes advantage of algae’s unique ability to be grown in small settings, tapping local sources of nutrients and labor. Let’s call this Small Algae.
Small Algae is Like Distributed Computing
If large-scale industrial algae production is like centralized mainframe processing, Small Algae is like personal computing. And today we know that both are needed. Back in the eighties we actually wondered if mainframes were going to become completely obsolete. Instead, a remarkable synergy has emerged that we call The Cloud, powered by vast arrays of servers and mainframe computing power that serve highly distributed user networks. One literally can’t function without the other. Is it possible that algae could develop in this direction?
To answer that, let’s look at some Small Algae scenarios, our own versions of these “highly distributed user networks”.
Rural Small Algae Production
Imagine an Indian village, with a small water treatment plant, where algae help purify organic waste, digesting it into methane and CO2. The methane is valuable for cooking and transportation, while the CO2 recycles to feed the algae. The whole setup requires skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labor for water treatment, energy generation and algae production.
An industrialized setting with the same amount of labor could handle a thousand times more volume. But in the village, labor is plentiful and cheap. Small Algae generates jobs and addresses village needs Big Algae can’t reach, including alternatives to expensive petroleum. And it creates rural jobs, a governmental priority to reduce urban migration.
Exporting Algae for Valuable Products
At the outset, Algae output can be bio-digested for fuel and fertilizer. But as production increases, the excess can be exported as a standardized algae “oily paste” to central locations to make higher-value products. Commodities all over the world use this kind of collection network. As a young second-in-command of an island freighter in the seventies, I helped collect smoke-dried coconut meat “copra” from small places in the southwestern Pacific, shipping them to a central processing plant to make copra cake for cattle, and coconut oil for cosmetics.
That kind of algae collection network can evolve. “Algae service providers”, along with Small Algae producers, will one day become our own version of The Cloud, delivering algae paste from small waste-to-algae centers throughout rural India, to strategically located processing centers.
Urban Small Algae Production
Back at home, automation is driving ever-higher productivity at the expense of urban semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. Today’s solar and wind renewable energies do little for domestic job creation. Components are manufactured outside the United States, and operating systems require very little labor, most of it skilled.
So how would Small Algae work in a place like Compton, California, where solar and wind alternatives generate neither jobs nor utility rate savings? This isn’t rural India. We already have industrial-scale wastewater treatment facilities, and rural Indian micro-wages have little appeal.
Getting Paid for Reducing Pollution
The key, again, is waste. Local industry puts out waste products that need purifying. Small Algae operations could get paid for capturing CO2 emissions. As greenhouse gas emissions regulation takes shape, electric power plants will increase budgets to comply. Wastewater treatment plants are also looking for cost-effective alternatives. Ideally, Small Algae operations could get paid for absorbing industrial CO2, helping treat wastewater, or both. It would require consistent, effective emissions regulation, which is scheduled to emerge over the next few years.
Absorbing Smog-Creating Chemicals
Los Angeles already has emissions regulations, in place for decades. Here and in some other cities, we regulate smog-producing chemicals such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Algae have a very high value in absorbing these toxins as well. So, in the right place, an urban Small Algae site can acquire the nutrients it needs at no cost, or earn income for removing pollutants like CO2, SO2 or NOx, possibly in conjunction with wastewater treatment.
As in India, urban Small Algae sites must operate inexpensively. In an urban environment, the value of land is an issue, and new technologies for dense algae production are needed. But above all, the site must be low tech and use inexpensive materials. Just as in India, we would start with simple output options for the algae. But sooner rather than later, we would want to export the algae paste to be “valorized” by an algae service provider.
Finding Support for Urban Algae Production
There are many related issues, such as training the skilled and semi-skilled labor. The algae industry must support the development of vocational training… “Algae U”. Fortunately, organizations like Lift Up America, which OriginOil sponsors, are devoted to developing jobs for inner city youth. They can help raise funds, and lobby for support.
We need Small Algae in parallel with Big Algae, because there is synergy, and because a few massive algae sites won’t be adequate to rapidly improve our energy security and the health of our populations. Like distributed computing, distributed algae production will become a powerful trend in years to come. Small Algae will be very big indeed.
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