Thursday, June 12, 2008

Algae: the fuel of the future

How many ways can algae be used to replace petroleum?

Lots of them, clearly.

(Image: An algae cocktail--dipped from a fishpond.)

For centuries—perhaps millenia—humans have been dragging kelp and other seaweeds out of the ocean and spreading them on fields as fertilizer. Long before the manufacture of chemical fertilizers that require vast inputs of energy.

But among the newer uses of algae are to actually create fuel rather than to supplant it.

Research teams across the globe are experimenting with the development of industrial-scale growing of varieties of algae that can be converted into a vegetable oil product—for use as biodiesel.

Royal Dutch Shell and HR Biopetroleum have formed a joint venture, Cellana, to develop this sort of fuel.

Says the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy news site: “Algae grow rapidly and can have a high percentage of lipids, or oils. They can double their mass several times a day and produce at least 15 times more oil per acre than alternatives such as rapeseed, palms, soybeans, or jatropha. Moreover, algae-growing facilities can be built on coastal land unsuitable for conventional agriculture.”

The work will be done at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai'i on the Kona coast.

“The Cellana facility will grow only non-genetically modified, marine microalgae species in open-air ponds using proprietary technology. It will also use bottled carbon dioxide to test the algae's ability to capture carbon,” EERE says.

Then there's another company, Algenol, that says it will make ethanol from algae. Among the benefits of this process over others, says the company website,

1. Does NOT require food based feedstocks like corn or sugarcane.
2. Does NOT require harvesting.
3. Does NOT require fossil fuel based fertilizers.
4. Does NOT require fresh water.
5. Does NOT require large amounts of fossil fuel.
6. Does NOT require arable land.
7. Does use desert land and marginal land.
8. Does make fresh water from seawater during the process.
9. Does use treated manure instead of fossil fuel based fertilizers.
10. Does have an energy balance over 8 : 1 (energy output : fossil fuel input).

Is that not enough for you? A Berkeley biologist, Anastasios Melis (, is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop techniques to get hydrogen out of algae—see

It turns out that some algae and blue-green algae (cyanobacteria—not really algae) dump hydrogen as a waste product.

It seems that this particular technology has an extensive research road before it's ready for prime time, but clearly, we'll be hearing lots more about algae in fuel discussions over time.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate