Mysterious organisms, greenhouse gas reduction, a lucrative business opportunity, and a new type of fuel. All in one package! What more could you ask? Well, it’s also green, literally.
This is the new promise of that lowly, misunderstood life form, pond scum. Or, more accurately, algae.
The full story is at Worldchanging. After a long period of experimentation, culture of oil-rich algal strains is beginning to show promise both for reducing carbon emissions and as a biofuel. In an ingenious model of industrial efficiency, Isaac Berzin at MIT developed an “emissions-to-biofuels” process in which industrial smokestack emissions are routed through an agal culture reactor that scrubs out CO2 and nitrogen and turns them into algal biomass, the natural oils from which which can then be converted to biodiesel. A win-win situation. Cool idea, but can it make the transition out of the lab?
The answer appears to be yes. This technology is now moving into industrial-scale applications. Greenfuel Technologies is installing the algal-based emissions-to-biofuels technology on power plants in Arizona and South Africa. Another company, Green Star, struck a deal last November to build 90 algae-based biodiesel reactors, also in South Africa.
Is this the new wave? It appears that the brief euphoric honeymoon for crop-based biofuels is coming to an end. Even the mainstream news media now get this — as evidenced by U.S. News and World Report’s cover story last week. Corn production for ethanol is water- and energy-intensive, competes for precious food-producing land, and is inefficient in that only the corn kernels are converted to fuel, with the rest of the plant tossed out or plowed under. Cellulose-based ethanol shows more promise (as discussed in a previous post) since it can be made from the whole plant, wood debris, or other sources, and competes less for arable land. But that technology has a good way to go before becoming commercially feasible. And, not suprisingly, the devil is the details for all of these options.
As potential biofuel producers, algae have several advantages over garden-variety land plants like corn. A few examples:
(1) In part because they produce virtually no structural tissues like stems and bark, microalgae grow much faster than land plants. They are lean, green, photosynthetic machines. It’s been estimated that oil yield from algae is 7-31 times greater on a per-area basis than that of the next most productive crop, oil palm (which, incidentally, is cultivated on land cleared from tropical rain forest and is burning that forest up at an alarming rate). (2) Because algae need high light but not soil, they can thrive in arid areas where they don’t compete for arable land, such as Isreal and the American southwest. (3) The algal oils can even be modified into jet fuel.
As a marine biologist who has spent much of my adult life on intimate terms with algae, this is something I can get behind.
(Photo of algal-filled tubes at MIT’s power plant by Ashley Ahearn)