But in many applications, pools of algae-rich water represent another kind of green: major financial investment, and significant financial reward. Often skewed more to the cost than the profit side.
Hawai'i is a hotbed of algae research, and much of that work is aimed at squeezing valuable biofuel out of the waterborne plants. But we're still some distance from being able to full your car, or your electric generating plant, with algae-based biofuel.
“Many years of both basic and applied science and engineering will likely be needed to achieve affordable, scalable, and sustainable algal-based fuels,” says a new U.S. Department of Energy report reviewing the status of a lot of the research. It's the National Algal Biofuels Technology roadmap.
Still, whodathunk pond scum would generate so much interest?
The report repeatedly cites Hawai'i as one of the places with lots of potential for this use.
First there's sunlight: “A significant portion of the United States is suitable for algae production from the standpoint of having adequate solar radiation (with parts of Hawaii, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida being most promising).”
Then water: “Areas with higher annual average precipitation (more than 40 inches), represented by specific regions of Hawaii, the Northwest, and the Southeast, are desirable for algae production from the standpoint of long-term availability and sustainability of water supply.”
Although, of course, these can work against each other. Hawai'i is also cited as a place with high evaporation rates.
We are credited with a long growing season, and our water tends not to spend a significant part of the year in its solid form.
So, the Islands can readily grow this stuff. Why would we want to? Well, in the post-petroleum energy picture, there are all kinds of players, but there is still a strong role for liquid fuels. Oil is a stunningly dense form of energy storage, appropriate for things like running aircraft. Nobody's yet figured out how to stuff enough batteries into a 767 to power it across an ocean.
What's cool about algae as a source of oil? The study says: “1) high per-acre productivity, 2) non-food based feedstock resources, 3) use of otherwise non-productive, non-arable land, 4) utilization of a wide variety of water sources (fresh, brackish, saline, marine, produced, and wastewater), 5) production of both biofuels and valuable co-products, and 6) potential recycling of CO2 and other nutrient waste streams.”
The latter is why Hawai'i BioEnergy put its test facility next to a power plant on Kaua'i. It could use the carbon dioxide from the power plant exhaust as food for the algae. See Hawaii BioEnergy here.
That's just one of several algae biofuel experiments in the state, and they're represented on all the major islands.
Meanwhile, HR Biopetroleum has signed an agreement for a Maui algae biofuel facility with partners Alexander & Baldwin, Hawaiian Electric and Maui Electric.
It's still all experimental. As the Department of Energy report says, “a scalable, sustainable and commercially viable system has yet to emerge.”
© Jan TenBruggencate 2010