Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Algae - The Holy Grail of Biodiesel - May Soon Be Reality

The biodiesel community has always been marked by spirited enthusiasm, a clear sense of mission, and the dream that biodiesel could one day play a significant role in our energy future. That dream may soon be a reality. Researchers at Utah State University say that farming algae, with reported oil yields of 10,000 gallons per acre, could become an economically feasible biodiesel feedstock by the end of the decade.

This is the Holy Grail of biodiesel: an oil source that could make a serious dent in our fossil fuel consumption. Our most productive feedstock today, the oil palm, doesn't even come close with

yields of 635 gallons/acre, and is followed distantly by the U.S. standard, soy, at 48 gallons of oil/acre.

Producing biodiesel from algae
isn't a new concept, and it's easy to see why: algae grow voraciously (measured by the day), algae can proliferate in heinous growing conditions (saltwater or extreme temperatures), and certain species contain up to 60% oil (by weight).

Put quite simply, microalgae are remarkable and efficient biological factories capable of taking a waste (zero-energy) form of carbon (CO2) and converting it into a high density liquid form of energy (natural oil). This ability has been the foundation of the research program funded by the Office Fuels Development."

Between 1978 and 1996, the Department of Energy (DOE) funded research into technologies that could have significant impacts on the consumption of fossil fuels. The focus of this research became the Aquatic Species Program (ASP), which investigated renewable fuel production (biodiesel) from high-oil algae species, fed by the waste CO2 from coal-fired plants. Researchers whittled down over 3,000 strains of microorganisms into the most productive 300, and constructed 1000 sq. meter test ponds outside of Roswell, NM. The ponds were set up as sort of algae 'race-tracks', where algae were circulated around shallow, oval-shaped ponds as carbon dioxide bubbled through the mixture. Results were successful and encouraging, but the program fizzled out after almost 2 decades (a lot of which had to do with a budget crunch and allocating more resources to researching ethanol). Researchers noted that one obstacle to large-scale algae production may be the high cost, which was estimated to be double the price of diesel at the time. (I wonder what they would say now.)

Utah State may finally take this research to the next level. Scientists there plan to produce algae in a grid of indoor bioreactors, with light captured by parabolic dishes on the roof and fed inside via fiber-optic cables. Put several thousand of these bioreactors together and you have an algae farm:

The solar bioreactor utilizes single cell algae, nature’s most efficient means to convert sunshine to biomass, which contain up to 60% oil by weight.[4] To minimize land and water resources, an enclosed bioreactor is used to grow algae on proprietary vertical membranes that resemble library newspaper racks. Harvesting of algae is achieved by periodically flushing water down the membrane from holes in the top ‘rack’. Mature algae are dislodged and collected in a bottom trough while immature algae cling to the membrane and continue to grow. Sunlight is collected and distributed to vertical panels that are sandwiched in close proximity between the growth membranes, much like alternating plates in a car battery. Oil extracted from mature algae can be converted to biodiesel using well established technologies."

The program has been funded by $6 million in seed money from the Utah Science and Technology Research Initiative, and plans on building the first commercial plant in Utah. USU researchers say algae-biodiesel could become economically feasible by 2009.

Needless to say, this is an exciting project that I will be watching closely.

By Clayton Bodie Cornell

1 comment:

La Wahie Biotech do Brasil said...


University of Hawai'i Professor Pengchen "Patrick" Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there's still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.


Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to "harvest" continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH's Shidler College of Business.
Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu's partners. So they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation's and the world's major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That's different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu's technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the
ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the

Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju - Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke - is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a
major cause of global warming.
Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil - 15/09/2008

Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail: pengchen2008@gmail.com
Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail: lawahiebiotech.brasil@gmail.com

Tel.: 00-55-79-3243-2209