JANUARY 2009

Algae may fuel engines
Organism 30 times more productive than plant biofuels
E-mail the author

Algae oil is less damaging to the environment than fossil fuels and efficiently removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The first generation of biofuel uses corn to produce ethanol. The second generation utilizes the non-food parts of the corn plants to create cellulosic ethanol. Now researchers are working on the third generation of biofuel – produced with algae.

“Extracting oil from algae to produce a more sustainable biofuel is one of the most promising and exciting areas of biofuels research today,” said Richard Sayre, director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

There are numerous benefits of algae oil compared to traditional fossil fuels, Sayre said. Algae oil is less damaging to the environment than fossil fuels, for starters. It efficiently removes or recycles carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example.

Algae are also at least 30 times more productive per unit of land than the best plant biofuel, according to Sayre. Algae can be harvested every day of the year, unlike crop plants. Plus it can be grown on marginal lands not currently used for crop plants.

“The growth environment can be very tightly controlled to optimize production,” Sayre said, noting algae ponds could produce 2,000 to 6,000 gallons of oil per acre per year. “This is enough to supply a full year’s supply of gas for two to five cars,” he said.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden Colorado, part of the United States Department of Energy (DOE), is also working on algae oil production.

Al Darzins, group manager and principal researcher at NREL, said the center first started working on algae oil back in 1978. The program lasted for almost 18 years.

The NREL went out into the environment to collect algae samples from different water sites, characterizing the species with regard to their oil production capabilities. Researchers also started developing tools to genetically engineer micro-algae.

Despite initial success with the research into algae oil, the DOE terminated the program in 1996, citing budget restraints. The federal department also wanted to put more money into cellulosic ethanol. Probably the biggest reason for shutting down the program, however, was because a barrel of oil only cost $20 at the time, Darzins said. “There was no way that the technology was competitive with $20 barrel of oil.”

Higher oil prices have changed the thinking, however. Darzins said that even though oil has since dropped after almost reaching $150 barrel this year, there is a lot more focus now on energy security and more interest in reducing greenhouse gases.

“There is more than just oil price now. I think everyone realizes that we are either at or soon will be at peak oil. We’ve already gotten all of the easy oil,” Darzins said.

“Plus with higher competition for energy from emerging countries like India and China, we think that ultimately the price of oil is going to have to go back up. I think with the other drivers, energy security and greenhouse abatement, the program is pretty safe.”

Over the last couple of years, the NREL decided to start researching algae oil again. According to Darzins, the research agency has about $1.5 million in internal funding for the algae biofuel program. The NREL also has started a program with Chevron Corp.

The San Ramon, California-based oil company entered into a collaborative research and development program last year to study and advance technology to produce liquid transportation fuels using algae. The agreement is set to last for five years.

Darzins said algae is a promising potential feedstock for third-generation biofuels because certain species contain high amounts of oil, which could be extracted, processed and refined into transportation fuels using currently available technology. Other benefits of using algae as a potential feedstock are their abundance and fast growth rates.

Algae have anywhere from 10 to 100 times oil yield benefit over oil seed crops, Darzins said. Soybeans, for example, produce about 48 gallons per acre per year. Algae, with the current state of technology, could produce about 1,000 gallons per acre per year, he said. “We think with additional research, with improvements in both engineering and the organisms as well, you may get up to 5,000 gallon an acre per year,” Darzins said.

Darzins estimates that in the last two years more than 100 small companies have started researching algae oil. But even with a strong interest, he estimates that the commercialization of algae oil is anywhere from 5 to 10 years in the future.

In addition to more money for research, he said there are technical barriers that need to be overcome. There are currently two ways to cultivate algae, for example, either in open ponds or what is known as closed bioreactors. “There is a huge debate about which is the best cultivation program. Each has disadvantages and advantages,” he said.

Open air ponds are cheaper. With the capital costs currently associated with algae oil, Darzins estimates that algae fuel is in the neighborhood of $9 to $18 a gallon. If a closed bioreactor is used, he estimates the price would double to $18 to $36 a gallon.

Despite the costs, venture capitalists are starting to put money into algae research. For example, a company out of California received $100 million in financing this fall. San Diego-based Sapphire Energy said it is now financed to scale up its production facilities. It anticipates relying on existing investors to achieve its initial commercial production capability of 10,000 barrels per day within the next three to five years.

Despite the varying time estimates for commercialization, Darzins said the NREL is very bullish on algae oil. But he advises to keep the developments in perspective. “There are a lot of challenges ahead and I think that we are still years away,” he said.