Lest we forget the nature of research and development

Biofuels & Climate Change

As I was surfing the blogosphere today looking for something to write about I came across Greentech Media‘s post, Algae Biodiesel: It’s $33 a Gallon.

The headline, not to mention the first paragraph are both real downers,

Although many believe that algae will become one of the chief feedstocks for diesel and even hydrocarbon-like fuels, growing large amounts of algae and then converting the single-celled creatures remains expensive, said experts at the National Biodiesel Conference taking place in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Which brings me to my point, the nature of research and innovation — and that is, someone will find a way.  Someone will figure out how to do it.  Just as in healthcare people figure out how to cure diseases, people will figure out our fuel problem.  We are just at the very beginning of figuring this out.

To put this in perspective, let’s take a look at the development of one of the biggest consumers of fuel, the automobile.  The Ford Model T had a 2.9 L, 20.2 hp, 4-cylinder engine, got between 13-21 mpg, ran on gasoline and ethanol and ran at top speeds of 40-45 mph.  Innovative of Ford, I have to say; very forward thinking, running on ethanol.  According to Wikipedia though because of Prohibition and the decreasing cost of gasoline the use of ethanol as a fuel became impractical.

Now compare that to the 140 hp 2.0 L engine on the Ford Focus, which gets 24-25 mpg.  Now that’s innovation!

So making fuel from algae, that’s innovative, and eventually someone will figure out how to make it more cheaply.  Maybe even use biotechnology.  In fact the article goes on to say at the end that some companies are doing just that by,

exploiting genetic science and fermenting techniques to accomplish the task. In fermentation, specific species of algae are locked into brewing kettles with sugars derived from old plant matter.

So, will we solve our domestic fuel problem? Yes, yes we will.  Over the years, Ford built a better car.  Through biotechnology we will build a better fuel.

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2 Responses to Lest we forget the nature of research and development

  1. Aureon Kwolek says:

    The Advantages of Heterotrophic Algae Grown at Corn Ethanol Refineries

    Solazyme uses a different method to produce algae. Most companies developing algae use photo-autotrophic algae grown in the light. Solazyme uses heterotrophic algae grown in the dark.

    Heterotrophic algae does not require sunlight, but the tradeoff is you have to feed it some kind of sugar. Initially, that sounds inefficient. Why expend the cost of sugar, when you can grow algae in sunlight for free? Look a little deeper, because there are big advantages of growing heterotrophic algae in the dark: (1) By growing algae in the dark, the process is simplified. Otherwise, it has to be designed and built to expose the algae to sunlight or expensive artificial light. Commercialized algae growing on sunlight would take up solar surface area and much larger land masses. Artificial light is an added expense. (2) Algae grown in the dark in insulated tanks can be produced 24 hours a day, with a minimum footprint. (3) It takes time for algae to absorb and process light, whereas sugars are absorbed in a fraction of the time. Heterotrophic growth rate is hyper fast, and the algae reproducing in insulated tanks are not subject to fluctuating sunlight or temperature extremes. (4) Sugar-fed heterotrophic algae multiplies rapidly and becomes many times more concentrated than algae grown in the light. Concentrated algae is also more efficient to extract from the liquid growth medium.

    Beside Solazyme, this method is also being developed by East Kentucky University and General Atomics, working together. They are leveraging local biomass sugars by feeding it to heterotrophic algae grown in vats. Researchers claim that algae grown in the dark can reach densities that are 1,000 times higher than strains of photo-autotrophic algae that must be grown in the light. This is one of the main advantages. Grow ONE tank full of heterotrophic algae concentrated one thousand times, or grow one thousand tanks of photo-autotrophic algae in the light. It’s the same amount of algae. Only one is far more concentrated into a much smaller footprint. Heterotrophic algae can be grown in the dark in large tanks, using very little additional land.

    Use local sugars derived from corn or sweet sorghum or food waste or cattails or potatoes or sugar beets or Jerusalem artichokes or cassava or sugar cane. Or convert cellulose into sugars from biomass or paper waste or agricultural waste or sewage or what have you. And leverage these sugars to multiply the algae many times. That is going to be your massive source of feedstock for ethanol, biodiesel, feed, fertilizer, and other value added products.

    Heterotrophic algae facilities should be installed where you have readily available waste heat, CO2 waste, nutrient rich waste water effluent, and local sugars. Existing corn ethanol refineries are a perfect match for growing heterotrophic algae. All the raw materials are already there. The infrastructure is already there. Corn has the advantage of being dried and stored efficiently, and it’s ready when you need it.

    Why take corn sugar and feed it to algae? Because you multiply the feedstock ONSITE, on a small footprint. And you multiply the feedstock many times, within in a short period of time, for pennies on the dollar.

    Sugar fed heterotrophic algae can reproduce in less than 8 hours, a phenomenal growth rate. It’s conceivable that you could combine 3 tablespoons full of live algae with a pound of corn sugar, and bubble CO2 waste through a medium of nutrient rich waste water effluent, warmed by waste heat, and get a return of 20 pounds of algae or more within 72 hours. Thus, the feedstock is multiplied many times, using waste products and a modest amount of corn sugar.

    The sugar is a minor expense, because a much larger portion of the input is exploited from the waste products. When the sugar is derived from corn starch, you will still have the corn protein and the corn oil, as byproducts. Now your main product will be made from the algae, and the algae byproducts will be exploited along with the corn byproducts.

    Out of tens of thousands of strains of algae, 32 types of heterotrophic algae have been identified thus far. Some are high in starch. Some are high in oil. Some are high in proteins. Depending on what you want to produce, you would select your strain accordingly. And after your primary product has been taken from the feedstock, make value added products from what’s left. If your primary product is ethanol, grow a high starch variety of algae. Or grow an oil-rich algae for oil production. Or a high protein variety for feed production. Or another type of algae to make fertilizer.

    Ethanol and biodiesel production will become integrated, because they will be co-products of the same algae feedstock. This will also provide cheap, local biodiesel for agriculture and transportation fuel. Corn ethanol plants already supply the livestock industry with feed. Algae can provide a second high protein feed product to market alongside distillers grains. The right strain of algae, when combined with distillers grains, could provide complete protein, with all the essential amino acids. Local fertilizer can also be mass-produced from algae.

    We now have 172 corn ethanol refineries and the infrastructure in place. This is a viable framework for a much bigger and more efficient ethanol and biodiesel industry, from which feed and fertilizer is also mass produced – An advanced industry based on heterotrophic algae fed with corn sugar.

    Take all the corn sugar that is now going straight to 10 billion gallons of ethanol, and instead, feed it to heterotrophic algae in tanks. Multiply the algae 20 times, and that would yield upwards of 200 billion U.S. gallons of ethanol per year, with no additional corn acreage. Biofuel critics would be silenced, and imported oil would be a thing of the past.

  2. Paul Farnham says:

    Why is waste CO2 required for this process? Surely without photosynthesis the chemistry of this system becomes an overall CO2 producer, not consumer.

    The yield argument adds up, not requiring light is an obvious advantage but what about the CO2 in the equation. If producing biofuel in this way is an overall CO2 producer then the argument for biofuels becomes extremely thin…the whole point is to reduce greenhouse gasses, not come up with a new system which actually produces them.

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