The beautiful thing about algae is that it grows rapidly, and it needs only sun, water and carbon dioxide to thrive. The idea of transforming it into a fuel-- one that eats a green house gas -- sounds too good to be true. But it's happening.
The concept is eerily ingenious. Take the gook that permeates our oceans and turn it into a self-perpetuating factory of biofuels to run our cars and fuel our factories. The rise of alga technology rivals that of the mighty wind turbine. Its methods of energy production seem futuristic, but with society's push for clean, green technologies, new businesses are sprouting up and tackling the niche market of biodiesel and ethanol. This time, however, they are using algae instead of corn.
There are numerous implementations of algae into the renewable energy market. Some companies want their bio-petroleum to completely replace the need for foreign diesel or gasoline, while others seek to gasify the divergent species into the methane used to power factories. Yet algae technology has also spawned companies that focus more on ridding ecosystems plagued with the intoxicating species and processing whatever they collect into petroleum chemicals that flavor our candy. All these companies represent a global thrust towards eco-business, although some are in it primarily for "eco" and others primarily for business.
This is the first in our series taking a look at companies basing biofuel efforts around algae.
Stellarwind Bio Energy: Energy from an Unlikely Source
If you ask Keith Masavage of Stellarwind Bio Energy (SBE) about his company's bio-diesel, he'll probably shake his head with a "no, no" and correct you, "It's bio-petroleum." Apparently, there's a difference. Unlike the bio-diesels and ethanols of the world, SBE's algae fuel is a crude oil, able to yield any type of gasoline-related product, even diesel.
An onlooker passing by an alga farm at night might thing he or she had entered an X-Files setting, where translucent, beanstalk-sized tubing line an arable landscape. The algae are grown in these meticulously situated containers to maximize sunlight exposure and per-acre efficiency. Ultraviolet-treated reclaimed water is the womb fluid for the organisms' growth, while adjacent bio-reactors pump in carbon dioxide from a local power plant. Yes, algae consume the glacier-melting green house gas.
Preliminary alga technology saw scientists growing algae in natural, open-water ponds. But the simple species turned out to be a choosy one, and it refused to burgeon unless the water held a precise temperature and there was an absence of harmful bacteria. Swamp-growth technique soon proved to be too laborious and the majority of businesses sought a more fertile solution. The answer came in the form of plastic diaphanous containers that could utilize natural sunlight while facilitating a controlled natural setting. The solution was a prosperous one and algae farmers like those at Stellarwind now see algae double in weight in a little more than two days.
Masavage says it takes six days for algae to get to the proper harvesting density.
"Once the algae reaches a proliferation point," explained Masavage, "we harvest 1/3 of it every day, de-water it, then put the water back in, extract the algae, dry it, run it through a process, which produces alkane."
Every part of the growth and development process is punctilious, nothing is thrown away or wasted. "It's a holistic fashion," said Masavage. "Everything gets recycled and used in the same process."
The specific alga Stellarwind uses was chosen out of 30,000 others because half of its biomass is made of oils used directly for fuel production. The other portion, its sugars and proteins, is separated out and sent to a bio-digester, where the components are then converted into either methane or agricultural fertilizer. The fertilizer gets used and the methane is employed to power the tubes that pump carbon dioxide into the bio-reactors. Even the water initially separated from the matured algae is salvaged and reused in the next batch. The result of this massive recover and reprocess system is energy efficiency and an estimated 10,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year.
"In 2008, 29 million acres were used for corn and soy per fuel, which added up to 1.2% of our [nation's] fuel needs. You give me 20 of those the 29 million acres and I can give you 100% percent of our oil imports," said Masavage. "Oil consumption [worldwide] increased 1.6 percent, China's annual increase is 7.7 percent, India's is 5.5 percent. By 2010, oil is going to be up to the $100-$150 price per barrel range. In five to 10 years [algae fuels can] produce 30% of our oil [needs]."
In the country's struggle to find a viable homegrown fuel, algae-petroleum is emerging as a front runner to propagate green collar jobs, boost national economic gain, and abolish threats to national security.
"For our type of oil, the market is paying more than $80 per barrel. It is consistent quality, unlike oil out of the ground. Every time a refinery gets that crude oil they need to change their set up at the site. There's virtually no sulfur in algae oil, so it's easier to refine," said Masavage.
A final advantage he points to: it's a renewable energy resource.
"If [a refinery is] burning oil that came from us, we can help mitigate those oil prices because [foreign suppliers] won't have a stranglehold on us . . . as long as oil does not drop to less than $50 per barrel we will be a viable company."
But bio-petroleum is not without its flaws. Like any other oil-derived fuel, burning it produces the normal and harmful array of green house gas pollution. "It has more particulate matter than it does carbon dioxide [emissions]," contested Masavage. "It's less polluting than gasoline and it's just as good as crude oil, it won't gum up [a car] engine." Algae-petroleum is a good change, and since mankind has still yet to discover a self-perpetuating machine, I'm pretty sure we can count this one as a win."
Only time will tell if Masavage's optimism is well-founded. Stay tuned for part II in our series on algae-based energy, where we spotlight Algenol, which converts blue-green algae into ethanol.
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