As climate change and rising oil prices intensify the search for alternative energy sources, researchers are on the brink of commercializing algae for fuel, experts say.
These small, plantlike organisms could be used as feedstocks for ethanol or other biofuels, replacing some of the traditional sources of ethanol, such as corn or soybeans.
Algae possess several characteristics that could propel them to the forefront of the renewable fuels industry. Top among these qualities is the ability to grow rapidly and with few inputs, such as fresh water or fertilizer, said Thomas Byrne of Byrne and Co. Ltd., a firm that provides advice on renewable energy projects.
"One of the arguments against (traditional) ethanol is that grain-based fuels use a fair amount of groundwater." Water usage has become an increasing concern in energy production, as groundwater levels decrease and demand rises, according to a recent Virginia Tech study that ranked corn ethanol at the bottom of the list for high-water usage. Algae also require water to grow, but only brackish or polluted water, not drinking water.
Other concerns about traditional ethanol have surfaced lately, including the land requirements associated with growing corn as a feedstock. Algae avoid these problems, because cropland is not required to produce the organisms.
Algae can also act as a sink for carbon dioxide because they absorb it for photosynthesis.
This increases the energy efficiency ratio to 10:1 which is much higher than a single ethanol plant alone that achieves a 1.3:1 EROEI ratio.
Even with rising oil prices, the feedstock costs are also very high and the market for ethanol is marginal. This is foricng XL Renewables to consider other feedstock options, design options and concept refinements as we wait for the next financing window.
We are currently focused on algae as a feedstock source because it can be grown locally, takes fewer acres and grows very high yields per acre. If you compare algae to corn, they both are made up of oils, carbohydrates (starches) and proteins. All of these components are utilized in a biorfinery to make fuels, feeds and fertilizers.
For the deserts of Arizona and similar regions around the world, it is the belief of XL that Algae holds the greatest promise as a Biorefinery feedstock. As a replacement for corn and other grains, algae biomass has some real advantages. Microscopic algae use a photosynthesis process similar to that of higher-developed plants, however algae is much more efficient grows faster.
XL Renewables, Inc, has developed a low-cost algae system for the large-scale production of algae biomass. Based on 40-acre fields that grow and harvest the algae, large-scale farms can be developed. Each field is graded to a zero grade and berms pulled up to form troughs. The XL Super Trough Liner is placed in the troughs to contain the water and provide a constant flow of CO2 enriched air to stimulate growth. It takes 24 hours for the algae water to flow through the field before it is collected and recirculated.
An algae producer has three primary processing options: 1) dry and pelletize; 2) extract the oils for biofuels and nutritional markets and pelletize the algae meal. 2) place the algae biomass concentrate into an anaerobic digester or boiler to produce energy and use the remaining solids for fertilizer.
"The emergence of algae biomass as a renewable source of vegetable oils, proteins and carbohydrates is what our world needs today to lower the demand pressures on corn and soybeans," said XL Renewables President and Chief Operating Officer Ben Cloud.
The Withrow 40 is a complete 40-acre algae farm using the XL Super Trough Liner. According to XL's CEO, Dennis Corderman, "the Withrow 40 represents the largest size unit of production. Large-scale farms will be developed in 40 acre units. Each 40 acre field has a harvest system to send algae concentrate to a central processing area."
The XL Super Trough Liner was developed at XL's Algae Development Center. XL Renewables has succeeded in developing an economical, large-scale algae production system for profitable algae biomass production.
Algae biomass pellets will be produced for various markets. There are many uses for algae biomass including biofuels, animal feeds, protein extractions and nutritional products.
The Withrow 40 will be open to the public on November 1, 2008 and sales of the XL Super Trough Liner and related Components will begin January 1, 2009.
Project developers and researchers are invited to contact XL Renewables and express their needs for 2009 and beyond.
Best of all, a number of companies say they can produce the alternative feedstock economically, including Ben Cloud of XL Renewables.
"The economic value of algae products is high and certainly sufficient for profitable production today," Cloud said.
XL Renewables plans to launch its algae-production technology in November. The Super Trough System utilizes shallow troughs to grow the algae, and CO2-enriched air is distributed over the troughs to feed the burgeoning organisms below.
In current tests, the system produces a yield range of 50 tons per acre, but Cloud said only 10.17 tons is required to be potentially profitable. However, he speculates future advances will lead to much higher rates of production.
"Algae's a very simple organism, and it's easy to identify (positive) characteristics and breed for them," thus increasing yields, Cloud said. He projects future rates as high as 100 to 150 tons per acre.
In reality, though, that rate isn't feasible, said Drgoljub Bilanovic, professor of environmental studies at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.
"Photosynthetic machinery which is in all green things can harness a maximum of 9 percent of solar energy," Bilanovic told United Press International.
That translate, theoretically, into 99 tons per acre, but no one's close to reaching that with today's technology, Bilanovic said.
Even if producers fail to meet Cloud's projected production rates, though, algae could still be profitable. And XL Renewables' trough system isn't the only option out there. The Alberta Research Council in Canada has focused on algae's potential to reduce CO2 through a Carbon Algae Recycling System.
The research project aims to sequester the high-carbon flue gas produced by coal-fire power plants in algae, said Quinn Goretzky of the Research Council.
"We want to take 40 to 45 percent of industrial flue gas released into the atmosphere and run it through our system to reduce the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere," he said.
The algae could then be used for a variety of purposes, including as a biofuels feedstock of animal feed.
The algae will be grown in open pond systems, with structures on top to protect the algae from snow during cold weather. The Research Council is looking at a variety of ways to increase yields, including projecting light further below the surface to raise photosynthetic productivity, Goretzky said. Another important factor is selecting the right kind of algae.
"There are over a million different strains of algae in Canada alone," Goretzky said. "We've worked with 21 samples, and, so far, the indications are quite promising."
The project will complete its first stage this year, and Goretzky said they hope to begin building lab-scale demonstration facilities before the end of 2008.
As algae producers turn to commercial-scale facilities, an important consideration is location, experts said at the Biotechnology Conference. Some possibilities include building adjacent to coal-fire power plants, to be close to a source of CO2, or next to ethanol plants, to decrease transportation of the algae once it's grown. Others are considering utilizing the wastewater produced by municipalities, although that particular possibility has potential drawbacks, said Byrne of Byrne and Co.
"There is some concern with that because many municipalities put chemicals in their systems to kill algae, so that could be problematic," he said.
Despite the many advantages, Algae also have some drawbacks, such as their requirement for light to grow. If producers use electricity to generate light or increase temperatures in an effort to increase productivity, it may take more energy to produce the algae than the algae will provide. Also, it takes more algae to produce a gallon of ethanol than corn, Byrne said.
"It takes more quantity to run through (the biorefinery) because it's not as high in starch as corn," he told UPI.
Actual requirement leads to reduce de human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emission into the atmosphere. This need, supported by the big business behind, allows developing several techniques to reduce the industrial CO2 emissions.
Algae is a highly efficient converter of solar energy into fuel for cars, homes, and power generators. Needing only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to grow; some strains of algae are over 50% oil and produce a high yield per acre.
In addition to being used as a feedstock for biofuels, algae has other benefits for the environment. Algae thrives on the harmful nitrogen from wastewater and carbon dioxide emissions that are generated from power plants.
The average yearly yield per acre is capable of producing nearly 5,000 gallons of biodiesel. In comparison, an acre of soybeans can typically only produce 70 gallons, with corn capable of producing only 420 gallons of ethanol per acre.
Industry experts say that the rule of thumb is that it takes two million tons of algae to be able to capture one million tons of carbon dioxide.
While using carbon dioxide to cultivate algae is not new, taking it from power plants and turning it biodiesel and ethanol is ground-breaking. It was first done by Arizona Public Service and GreenFuel Technologies in 2006, marking the first time ever that algae grown on-site by direct connection to a commercial power plant had been successfully converted to transportation-grade bio-fuels.
Consider NRG Energy, which is field testing the technology at one of its coal-fired plants in Louisiana: It is using naturally-occurring algae to capture and reduce flue gas carbon dioxide emissions. The energy-rich algae are harvested daily and can be converted into a broad range of bio-fuels or high-value animal feed supplements.
A new report suggests that the United States can achieve a 60 to 80 percent reduction of emissions through renewable technologies. It is estimated that there are about 1,700 power plants in the U.S. that have enough surrounding land to support a commercial-scale system. But just imagine the impact on our nation’s renewable fuel supply if just one large coal-fired plant supported 10,000 acres of algae. That could be 80 million gallons of clean, renewable transportation fuels. Now there’s some fuel for thought.
Algae have long been an outsider among biofuel crops. The US Department of Energy (DoE) has funded research into algal fuels under the Aquatic Species Program from 1978 to 1996, but then switched resources to other programs, for example, using maize as a feedstock for bioethanol.
While several companies like Algae BioFuels and Greenfuels and Solix Biofuels are working on algae cultivation research for biofuel, the LiveFuels Alliance differs in that it is a national initiative. Lead by Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory, the collaborative will sponsor dozens of labs and hundreds of scientists within the next three years making it the largest endeavor focused on commercial biocrude from algae
The scientists involved in the LiveFuels project are focusing on specialized aspects of the algae-to-biocrude process. Some are breeding algae to find the best high-fat strains, others are refining the fat and oil extraction process and others still are developing cost-effective harvesting techniques. The biggest challenge is to make algae biocrude within a fraction of the time that nature’s biomass decomposition occurs and to do it economically, for less than $60 a barrel.
The Office of Fuels Development, a division of the Department of Energy, funded a program from 1978 through 1996 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory known as the Aquatic Species Program. The focus of this program was to investigate high-oil algae that could be grown specifically for the purpose of wide-scale biodiesel production. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content, in excess of 50%, and extremely rapid growth rates.
Algae can be used as a biological source for the production of hydrogen. In 1939 a German researcher named Hans Gaffron, while working at the University of Chicago, observed that the algae he was studying, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (a green alga), would sometimes switch from the production of oxygen to the production of hydrogen. Gaffron never discovered the cause for this change and for many years other scientists failed in their attempts at its discovery. In the late 1990s professor Anastasios Melis, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley discovered that by depriving the algae of sulfur it will switch from the production of oxygen (normal photosynthesis), to the production of hydrogen. He found that the enzyme responsible for this reaction is hydrogenase, but that the hydrogenase will not cause this switch in the presence of oxygen. Melis found that depleting the amount of sulfur available to the algae interrupted its internal oxygen flow, allowing the hydrogenase an environment in which it can react, causing the algae to produce hydrogen.
Since solar energy comes in at a density of little more than 1 kW/m^2, there is essentially only one way of using it economically for large-scale energy production: man must tap only what nature has collected. Nature has been busily collecting solar energy over millions of years in what we tap as fossil fuels, and over millions of acres in what we tap as hydropower.
A typical algal mass has a heating value (heat produced by combustion) of 8,000-10,000 BTU/lb, which is better than lignite; but the heating value of algal oil and lipids is 16,000 BTU/lb, which is better than anthracite.
Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) estimates the cost of liquid fuel from algae at the present state of knowledge at $250 to $350 per barrel, but hopes to reduce it to $60 to $85 per barrel by the year 2000, and regards that as a competitive price.
Dovetailing nicely into my post last week about the work GreenFuel is doing with algae and their emissions-to-fuel process, air carrier KLM reported last week their intention to begin testing airplanes that run on an algae-based fuel.
In a pilot program with AlgaeLink, a Netherlands-based global manufacturer of algae growing equipment and “earth-to-engine” technology, KLM expects to conduct test flights this fall. AlgaeLink will also open two plants this year in the Netherlands and Spain.
KLM hopes to have 12 of their Fokker-50 planes (7% of their air fleet) running on the fuel by 2010, with the eventual goal of running their entire fleet of airplanes on fuel made from algae.
The cost of fuel is an increasing burden on the bottom line for airlines all over the world. In 2012 airlines in Europe will be required to pay for their CO2 emissions. At $100 a barrel, algae will then become not only the carbon neutral choice, but the most cost effective one as well.
The production of these biofuels necessitates the use of large tracts of land. According to Jean
Marc Jancovici, an engineer specializing in greenhouse gas emissions, it would require a
sunflower field 118% the size of France to replace the 50Mtep of petroleum consumed each year
by the French for their transportation needs (104% of the size of France for rapeseed, 120% for beet, 2700% for wheat).
In 1998, a barrel of petroleum sold for $13; today the price can exceed $50 per barrel. If the production of algal biodiesel has not already been widespread at an industrial scale, it’s simply on account of concerns about profitability and competition. In 1982, it was estimated by Benemann that the cost of production for a barrel of algal biodiesel was, on average, $94 (the hypothetical base was $61 and hypothetical high was $127, depending on the mode of production). According to Michael Briggs: “The operating costs, including power consumption, labor, chemicals, and fixed capital costs (taxes, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and return on investment) worked out to $12,000 per hectare. That would equate to $46.2 billion per year for all the algae farms, to yield all the oil feedstock necessary for the entire country. Compare that to the $100 - $150 billion the US spends each year just on purchasing crude oil from foreign countries, with all of that money leaving the US economy.” Scientists at NREL think that these new fuels will become competitive by 2010.
The growth rate -- an average productivity of 98 grams/meter sq./day (ash free, dry weight basis) and reaching a high peak value of 174 grams/meter sq./day -- surpassed previous lab growth rates and exceeded all expectations going into the project. The results provide evidence of the financial viability of using the emissions of a power plant to grow algae for the exclusive purpose of creating biofuels.
Simgae promises to improve the cost efficiency of producing biofuel from algae. Algae is touted as a cheaper alternative to traditional biofuel feedstock, producing thirty times more oil with one hundredth the water per acre required as compared to traditional crops. Despite the benefits of this new wonder biofuel crop, investors have balked at the prohibitive capital costs, which can run up to US$1 million per acre.
DEC claims the Simgae system will be able to reduce the capital cost to between US$45,000 to US$60,000, up to sixteen times cheaper than competing systems. Simgae is also expected to provide an annual algae yield of 100 to 200 dry tons per acre and produce oil at only US$0.08 to US$0.12 per pound, much lower than traditional feedstocks, which were recently trading at between US$0.25 to US$0.44 per pound.
Carbon dioxide capture and storage is a process for reducing GHG emissions into the atmosphere by first extracting CO2 from gas streams typically emitted during electricity production, fuel processing and other industrial process. Once captured and compressed, the CO2 is transported by pipeline or tanker to a storage site, often to be injected into an underground storage site, where it will be safely stored for the long-term. The technology for CCS is most efficient for a few large, concentrated and high pressure sources of CO2 such as Electricity Power Plant and oil sand facilities. These three technologies (capture, transport and storage) could be summarised as:
Storage is not a completely known technology. It consists of depositions of CO2, in supercritical state, trapped in a geological formation (Deep Saline Aquifers) or in association with other industries as Coal Beds, EOR and EGR; however these three last technologies do not offer a huge potential storage. There are some studies driven to store the CO2 in deep ocean, but it was proven that the ocean salinity increase and become other environmental problem. The main
All the provinces affected by high CO2 emissions from Power Plants and other facilities are developing CCS projects for research.
CCS cost has a range from 25 to 110 $/tCO2.
There are 131 different projects around the world, seven of them as integrated CCS; In Canada there are more than 12 projects reported. Different governments constantly announce new projects. The main projects in west Canada are:
UCG is a process through which coal is converted in-situ in syngas. The gas can be processed to remove its CO2 content, thereby providing a source of clean energy with minimal GHG emissions. This syngas is produced at a lower cost than by IGCC technology.
The process is known since 1868 in the Former Soviet Union. Ten
years ago started the studies to apply in commercial scale in
CCS is a bridging technology that should be broadly implemented as part of a portfolio of GHG emissions reduction measures.
CCS is technically feasible but many challenges remain that must be overcome for full scale commercial deployment.
There are several projects around the world testing, knowing the process and measuring the risk for CO2 storage. There is significant potential capacity for CO2 storage in western Canada
The technology for CO2 capture is improving quickly, reducing the cost for PC Power Plants.
The storage technology is known, but there are not experiences in long term effects. Many countries are developing knowledge and R&D projects. Different groups speak about from eight to twelve years for having the first full scale commercial project. Regulation is necessary to support these large scale / long term developments.
Other technological alternatives are being developed which is not necessary the CO2 storage. If these technologies reach to develop for large scale projects, it would be a very important alternative solution for the CO2 emission problem.