Not 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.
This 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.
But 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.