Biodiesel from algae

CSU announced a partnership with Solix Biofuels to get serious about commercializing technology that can produce huge amounts of very oily types of algae for biofuels production. “Algae are the fastest growing organisms on the planet, and can produce 100 times more oil per acre than conventional soil-tilled crops that are now being grown for biofuel use,” said Solix founder Jim Sears. I would love to see some real numbers as to how much energy input 50 Gallons of algae oil require. My guess is that it should be much lower than soy or canola. Biofuels from micro-organisms like algae has great potential for being a huge piece in the sustainable-energy puzzle.

The high density of the production allows for great capacity, and their production does not compete with human food production. Algae are also much less likely to provide incentive for the destruction of wildlife habitat, like palm oil. Yet, it’s not easy to grow the organisms:

“It’s very difficult to grow algae,” said Cary Bullock, CEO of Greenfuel Technologies, a startup developing a technology to turn smokestack emissions into ethanol and biodiesel (…).

Mr. Bullock described the process: First, you need a distributed light source to get light past the top layer of algae and deeper into the ponds. One you solve that problem, you discover that the algae runs out of food. To increase the food supply, you have to make significant changes to the nursery system. And once you’ve done that, you have to manage heat.

“Two of those problems would be difficult, but all four together are quite a problem,” he said, adding that Greenfuel expects to solve the problems with solutions it’s developing.
Biofuels Smackdown: Algae vs. Soybeans
, Red Herring, December 7, 2006

The Red Herring title frames the issue a bit stupidly as a competition, but the story actually gives a pretty good overview of algae in the biofuels-feedstock discussion. From a technical standpoint, the feedstock question is evolutionary, not competitive. Over time, we will need to come up with more efficient feedstock. But of course this is also a highly political discussion – just ask the ASA.

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