The future of auto fuel is green . . . and slimy?

algaeasfarastheeyecansee.jpgNot so long ago, biofuels seemed like the holy grail we’d all been looking for.  After the euphoria came the hangover, including a pounding headache about the side-effects of cultivating corn and oil palm. And now we’re faced with trying to shake the new corn addiction that we took on to cure the oil addiction.

But perhaps there is still hope.  There’s always been the sleeper biofuel cruising under the radar of corn and oilpalm and sugarcane: algae.  Yes, the humble pond scum.

The Guardian reports that Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation, a start-up in New Zealand has succeeded in extracting biofuel from sewage, via algae, and then running a car with it.

bio-beetle.jpgThis is not just a flash in the oilpan, so to speak.  Shell is also getting up on the bandwagon. Their algal biofuel operation, in collaboration with HR Biopetroleum, involves a demo facility on the Kona coast of Hawaii where, they say, culture of fast-growing algae can produce much more oil per hectare than rapeseed or other oil crops (Greenpeace was quick to point out, however, that boutique dabbling in biofuels by Shell and other oil giants is a sideshow to their main efforts focused on strip-mining Canada to extract old-fashioned oil from the tar sands there).  The highly efficient production, and ability to grow in areas that don’t compete with cropland, is a major plus for algae:

“And they need less space than other biofuels. While corn produces 60 or so gallons of ethanol an acre annually, algae can provide up to 10,000 gallons of biofuel, says Dave Daggett, research chief at Boeing.”

There is no silver bullet of course.  Fueling cars (and even jets) with algae on a grand scale will not be easy, as those familiar with the history of algal biofuels will appreciate.  Hurdles include finding the right strain of alga (“alga” is the singular of algae, which as an academic pedant I feel I must point out.  Slip that into your next cocktail party conversation) to grow under your particular conditions, growing it abundantly, separating algae from the water, extracting oil from the algal biomass, and of course, converting it into something you can pump into your car.

biojet.jpgBut it can be done, at least on the level of a demonstration project.  This past October saw the first jet flight powered entirely by biodiesel.  And there is lots of new excitement — and, more importantly, venture capital — flowing in to the field.

One of the things that I find cool about these new projects is the growing interest in “wild algae”, that is in encouraging nature to do more of the work with natural diverse algal communities in open systems as opposed to basing the operation entirely on highly controlled single-strain bioreactor technology.  The Guardian quotes Kelly Ogilvie, co-founder of Blue Marble Energy in Seattle, which aims to harvest algae from sewage outflows, lakes and rivers, mining ponds and algal blooms caused by pollution:

Those who advocate algae monoculture believe ponds or bioreactors, closed systems that manipulate growing conditions, will do the trick eventually. But wild algae believers reject both methods as costly and unproductive.

“If the future of biofuels is algae, and I believe it is, you’re never going to get enough volume in bioreactors or ponds,” says Ogilvie. “It has to be something with greater volume.” He says the best approach is to mimic nature by creating algae farms, or by harvesting algae blooms. “Why try to out-engineer nature?” he asks.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Sustainability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The future of auto fuel is green . . . and slimy?

  1. Paul says:

    I love it; reduce pollution and make fuel with energy packing pond scum! If we keep trying, something like this will eventually work. We didn’t envision the iPod during the phonograph era, or even during the cassette tape era, and similarly I think we’ll be amazed by our energy ingenuity. Nice post.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Paul, I hope algal biofuels can become a significant part of the silver buckshot solution. It would take an awful lot of algae (and acreage to grow them) to power the gigantic fleet of SUVs currently prowling our streets — not mention the automotive explosion on the horizon in China. So we will also need electric hybrids, eventually hydrogen fuel cells, and most importantly, aggressive, integrated efforts at conservation including smaller and much more efficient cars, better designed cities and transport networks, etc. But algae should be part of it all. Plus they can be used to clean the effluent stream!

  3. Thank you for posting this article.

    I agree with Emmett that a diverse, comprehesive solution is needed to meet the energy demands of booming economies. With oil crossing $100 a barrel, and agricultural commodities pushing the price of biofuel feedstock sky high, we need to find a non-food based liquid fuel source. Algae is it. Grows incredibly fast, and eats carbon dioxide. Amazing organism that was here before us, and will be here after.

    If I can pontificate for a moment, looking into the future, I see hope and remain optimistic in the face of the crisis we confront. By 2030, you will see a robust solar infrastructure around the equator, with ocean based algage farms providing large amounts of liquid fuel feedstock, while at the same time sequestering large amounts of CO2.

    I invite anyone interested in talking more to email me at

    I have dedicated my life to solving this problem, and I hope you will join me in dialogue about how best to clean our environment, create sound business from it, and provide meaningful jobs with design integration.

    Kelly M. Ogilvie

  4. Emmett Duffy says:

    Welcome Kelly — great to have a message straight from the source! And it’s good to hear a hopeful message for change too. I am also bullish about solar. I salute you for the hard work and innovation in bringing this new approach to the energy market, which is so sorely in need of it. Keep up the good work!

  5. MustardSeed says:

    A serious attempt to grow algae on a mass scale would require (or at least greatly benefit from, in terms of available property) farming out the vastly untapped areas of international ocean.
    What is the process of creating an “algae farm”? Does pondscum mutate at a rate fast enough to adapt it artificially to any environment? And what is the difference in energy production (and therefore investment return) between “wild algae” and single-strain methods? Could a strain, or series of strains, be adapted to process particular chemicals into energy?

  6. Emmett Duffy says:

    Mustardseed: There are indeed serious logistical hurdles to making algal biofuels a major energy source. I think the current idea is that large-scale culture would involve ponds and/or closed culture systems on land, just because they are much easier to manage than something out on the high seas.

    Your questions about how to use wild algal assemblages (groups of species or strains) are good ones. I think that is the frontier. Probably a single strain would be more productive than a diverse group under a specific set of conditions. But the diverse group might provide “insurance” in the sense that the multiple strains present are likely to contain strains that will produce well as conditions change through time and space. At the same time, there is a lot of interest now in artificially selecting strains that grow fast and produce lots of oil, in much the same way we’ve selected more or less flightless chickens and seedles oranges and productive dairy cattle and tiny lapdogs over the centuries.

  7. Mustard, Emmett:

    Blue Marble focuses on wild algae growth, and are strain agnostic. The Department of Energy conducted a research study to determine the suitability of algae as a source of a Quad (a quadrillion Btu’s) of energy and found that in open environments, the most productive strains were wild algae strains. Nature determines the best algae suitable for the environment and runs with it. We take this approach:

    Why try to out-engineer nature? Nature has been doing this for billions of years, and is the ultimate bioreactor.

    This approach and our generation strategy centers around the concept of “biomimicry”. The future of volume algae growth is: how do you propagae large, dense algae blooms, how do you contain them, and how do you harvest them at a cell density suitable for bioenergy?

    As far as ocean based algae farming, we are poineering the technology to survive the stressful conditions at sea: salinity, wave action, and proximity to land.

    For now though, we are developing technology that converts the algae mass into its highest yielding forms: methane gas, ethanol (carbohydrates), and lipids for biodiesel, and fertilizer as a byproduct. The irony is that while Biodiesel gets the press and is sexy, the Btu value is a distant third.

    As for your growth question: if you start the day with one pound of algae, you can end the day with 10.

    As for your chemical question: we can extract constituent chemicals in our energy process. Currently, the capture of anhydrous ammonia is seen as a boon to create low cost nitrogen for developing countries.

    We are also going to work with a group of dedicated companies to develop commercially viable algae-jet fuel. We live in exciting times my friends.

    I hope this answers your questions. I or BME staff are available to answer any further questions.

    Kelly M. Ogilvie

  8. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for the new info Kelly. Sorry for the delay — I have been away (doing field research in Jamaica) for the last week and your comment went into the moderation queue for some reason.

  9. Dillon Burkland says:

    This is a great idea! I love the ingenuity of people these days. I may not be as up to date with biofuels as most the people on this forum (I’m in 11th grade, haha) but I am also 100% behind anything alternate fuel. I know that our dependance on foreign oil is one of the main concerns of this country, and I really want to see more research done in this field. While it may not be a permanent fix to the major destruction of our ozone, it’s a pretty big sized band-aid for it. I really think algae has major potential, someone just needs to unlock it!

  10. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for your comment Dillon. With any luck, I will have more to say about algal biofuels in coming months because we are starting up a research project in this area here. Check in from time to time to see what’s new.

  11. kimo Sabe says:

    The biggest problem in ocean farming of algae is the harvesting. If the farm area is large enough to handle sewer out fall and CO2 from industries near the ocean then they could be many miles large. They must be submerged to 30 feet or they will be in marine areas from boats to weather. Buoys could then be used to anchor and collect solar light transmited in tubes to the algae. Sewer water can be sprayed in the farming circles around the farm and have wind and currents push the nutrients to the entire farm. Bubblers of CO2 could be attached to the light tubes and absorbed by the algae to produce oxygen.
    Then the harvest must be collected on the medium used and replaced with seed algae to make more . It could be done by a barge with a collection unit .

  12. is doing this in Nebraska in case anyone in our area is interested in getting involved?