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Algae for Biofuels

Much of the information here about algae has been adapted, abbreviated, quoted, and summarized from two websites listed at the end of this brief introduction about the use of algae for biofuels. It should give you a good idea of why Michael, Dick, and JD are so excited in Zero Emissions about a breakthrough in algae-based green gas.


Now, let's start at the beginning by defining algae. They are simple plants that can range from the microscopic (microalgae) to large seaweeds like giant kelp (macroalgae). The biofuel in Zero Emissions we're interested in comes from microalgae. And most microalgae grow through photosynthesis – by converting sunlight, CO2 and a few nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorous, into material known as biomass.

Algae are found pretty much everywhere on the planet and play an important role in many ecosystems, as well as producing about 70 percent of all the air we breathe. They can be cultivated on land in large ponds, or in enclosed photo bioreactors using enriched CO2. They can reproduce fast, faster than any other plants, and there are tens of thousands of species of algae, with more discovered every day. There isn't one single way to grow algae at a commercial scale, and this versatility is one of algae’s strengths, with the approach taken designed to maximize algae growth for production of fuel, chemicals or other industrial products.

Using algae as a source of food, feed and energy isn't new. Production of methane gas from algae was put forward in the early 1950s, and received a big boost during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when projects were initiated to produce gaseous fuels (hydrogen and methane). From 1980 to 1996 the US Department of Energy supported a relatively small effort (about $25 million over almost 20 years) with the specific goal of producing oil from microalgae.

More recently, rising global demand for transportation fuels, concern over increasing impacts of atmospheric CO2, the ongoing importation of fuel, and the energy security risks that come with that, among other things, has kept the interest of biofuels in general and algae-based biofuels in particular in the news. And advances in biotechnology, such as the ability to genetically engineer algae to produce more oils and convert solar energy more efficiently, have unleashed new possibilities for algae research and commercial viability. The US is the leader in advancing algae-based fuels, although efforts are underway globally as well.

Algae are promising as long-term, sustainable sources of biomass and oils for fuel, food, feed, and other co-products primarily because of the large number and wide variety of benefits associated with how and where they grow. Algae have evolved to produce and store energy in the form of oil more efficiently than other known natural or engineered processes.

What makes algae a promising new source of fuel (and other products) is put forward by the all About Algae website listed at the end of this piece, and this article lists the benefits of algae "as:

1) Algae Grow Fast. ?Algae can double their numbers every few hours, can be harvested daily, and have the potential to produce a volume of biomass and biofuel many times greater than that of our most productive crops.

2) Algae Can Have High Biofuel Yields. ?Algae store energy in the form of oils and carbohydrates, which, combined with their high productivity, means they can produce from 2,000 to as many as 5,000 gallons of biofuels per acre per year.

3) Algae Consume CO2. ?Like any other plant, algae, when grown using sunlight, consume (or absorb) carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow, releasing oxygen (O2) for the rest of us to breathe. For high productivity, algae require more CO2, which can be supplied by emissions sources such as power plants, ethanol facilities, and other sources.

4) Algae Do Not Compete With Agriculture. ?Algae cultivation uses both land that in many cases is unsuitable for traditional agriculture, as well as water sources that are not useable for other crops, such as sea-, brackish- and wastewater. As such, algae-based fuels complement biofuels made from traditional agricultural processes.

5) Microalgal Biomass Can Be Used for Fuel, Feed and Food. Microalgae can be cultivated to have a high protein and oil content, for example, which can be used to produce either biofuels or animal feeds, or both. In addition, microalgal biomass, which is rich in micronutrients, is already used for dietary supplements to advance human health.

6) Macroalgae Can Be Grown in the Sea. ?Macroalgae (seaweeds) are grown in the sea, or even on land with seawater, and their sugars can be converted into biofuels and chemicals.

7) Algae Can Purify Wastewaters. ?Algae thrive in nutrient-rich waters like municipal wastewaters (sewage), animal wastes and some industrial effluents, at the same time purifying these wastes while producing a biomass suitable for biofuels production.

8) Algal Biomass Can Be Used as an Energy Source. ?After oil extraction, the remaining algal biomass can be dried and “pelletized” and used as fuel that is burned in industrial boilers and other power generation sources.

9) Algae Can Be Used to Produce Many Useful Products. ?Algae can be cultivated to produce a variety of products for large to small markets: plastics, chemical feedstocks, lubricants, fertilizers, and even cosmetics.

10) The Algae Industry is a Job Creation Engine. ?Algae can grow in a wide variety of climates in a multitude of production methods, from ponds to photo bioreactors to fermenters, and thus will create a wide variety of jobs throughout the United States, from research to engineering, from construction to farming, from marketing to financial services. The Algal Biomass Association projects the potential for creation of 220,000 jobs in this sector by 2020."

In summary, while we aren't totally there with a perfect algae-based biofuel such as what Michael and Dick are working on in Zero Emissions, this science is very real and really exciting. Take a look at these websites for more information.

How Algae Biodiesel Works

All About Algae