June 26, 2007
The Brickmuppet's crack team of science geezers celebrate the construction of the first Algaeal oil plant...in Alabama.
Oil production from algae is highly promising for several reasons but gets not nearly the attention of other biofuel processes, in large part because it is incompatible with current farming methods. The Iowa corn Mafia is not going to plant algae next year.
In my admittedly undergraduate opinion, this would seem to be a feature rather than a bug. Algae will inherently not displace food production, nor will it use up "waste" portions of crops that are normally recycled into the soil, preserving soil quality.
For some years I've been a member of a Yahoo group dedicated to this sort of thing....which from watching the news one would think is about the level of support its been getting worldwide. However there are several companies actively pursuing this as can be seen at this biodiesel wiki.
Algae can in theory, be grown off of sewage and in generally un-suitable areas for other crops. Algae has a high oil content....in some species over 50% making refining rather straightforward. Algae grows fast multiple crops can be pulled in in months, but the mechanics of how to avoid diminishing returns require fairly complex geometries in the incubators that are still being learned. Few companies have approached theoretical levels of oil production but the potential is rather stunning.
Compared to other biofuel crops (excepting, curiously, sugarcane)
Gallons of Oil per
Acre per Year
Chart is shamelessly stolen from here where one Thomas F. Reising (PhD) reports on some successes by a company called Green Fuel Technologies and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He estimates that biodiesel produced from 15,000 square miles (a drop in the bucket given the CONUS land area of over 3 million square miles) could produce all the fuel for our transportation needs. Note that efficiencies actually can be higher than this as it seems to be assuming ponds as opposed to the more efficient "watertube greenhouses" most of the focus is now on ....often as side units to various manufacturing operations eating the CO2 emissions. More on Green Fuel Technologies can be found here.
Between this and small scale (backyard) operations the potential for a highly robust, distributed, renewable energy source fairly resistant to monopolistic tendencies is really interesting.
A rather less sanguine take can be found in this Popular Science article, but at least some of the issues raised here seem to have been dealt with by other companies/ universities as related above.
The Wikipedia page on Algaculture, while fairly cursory is here.
Many hours of time can be wasted perusing this facinating Oil From algae Wiki..
Those numbers listed are concerned with oil production not total energy usage. The assumption is that power is added from somewhere to refine the oil.
Now algae is very easy to refine to oil, but it still must be refined and refining takes energy. Ignoring the solar energy the algae used to grow itself, Algael oil is one of the very few biofuels that can really fuel itself. It is very efficient. But to achieve its potential the power for the refining must come from elsewhere.
The highest density, least polluting energy source we have is nuclear...(I'm partial to thorium cycle reactors myself)
Again, there is no free lunch. We are (again )confronted with the simple fact that those who oppose nuclear power are not serious about the environment.
Oh...and one more thing....scarcely worth mentioning....
Regards the relative potential yield of various biofuels...take a look below the fold to grasp just what a boondoggle the corn to ethanol initiatives are......
|Crop||kg oil/ha||litres oil/ha||lbs oil/acre||US gal/acre|
|tung oil tree||790||940||705||100|
Wow! That's some serious boondogleage!
Chart lifted from here.
Posted by: Mitch H. at Wed Jun 27 08:19:15 2007 (iTVQj)
This may be what you're talking about and there are lots of others out there:
You need CO2+Water+Food+Light and a strainer. The geometries of it can get complex but much of what is being seriously looked at as opposed to the "farm of tomorrow" concept art is fairly low key.
There are some hurdles to be sure, but the potential seems big.
Posted by: Brickmuppet at Wed Jun 27 20:18:36 2007 (V5zw/)
Posted by: Brickmuppet at Wed Jun 27 21:50:37 2007 (V5zw/)
BTW, that algaeculture wiki notes that people have pretty much given up on using open-pond aquaculture for oil algae, for much the same reasons I laid out - low-oil algaes have an overwhelming competitive advantage in open-pond conditions.
Posted by: Mitch H. at Thu Jun 28 14:58:46 2007 (iTVQj)
Yes, but there are degrees.
Hydroponic systems are aggravating but eminently doable. There seem to be no hurdles other than technique. The smaller scale systems like the one in the second photo (which, BTW was just a quick Google image search) are being looked at as feeding off industrial exhaust and add-ons to existing infrastructure.
If the payoff becomes really big, then huge FOT projects will likely come to pass over time, but small scale demonstrators are best while industry is still learning the ropes.
This is not a sure thing, but it seems very promising to me.
Posted by: Ken at Thu Jun 28 19:24:17 2007 (V5zw/)
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