Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fuel Algae Growing a Success.

The University of Nevada have demonstrated that several hundred gallons of algal biomass can be grown in a 5,000 gallon open-air pond. To stress, the pond is not covered and is left open to the elements and at ambient temperatures down into the 20's of degrees C. The results indicate that algae can be grown around the year and a new spring crop is anticipated.

The research, led by Professor John Cushman, supports the ideal that with a correct choice of algal strain and the right technology, round-year growing is possible in the relatively arid prevailing conditions of Nevada. The strategy is one of seeding the pond with a starter culture (unspecified while patents are pending), which I believe PetroSun plans to use to grow algae on a large (30 million gallons/year) scale in Arizona. Shell is working on a similar approach in Hawaii, in which open ponds are inoculated with a predetermined algal culture to out-compete other potentially invasive strains. It is anticipated that the Nevada algae harvest will yield 30% of its mass of lipids and 5% starches (carbohydrate), and presumably the rest is protein and nucleic acids? This is the composition of dry algae that is being quoted.

Since open ponds can be used, the high initial capital costs incurred in using "closed" photobioreactors or covered ponds is avoided. The university is assessing other kinds of algae for their fitness in this application, with a longer term goal of producing algae that grow well on saline (salt) water and produce around 50% of their mass of oil. Algal oil is similar is chemical composition to vegetable oils and can similarly be transesterified to biodiesel; however, this does add both capital and energy costs to the process.

The ponds themselves were made in collaboration with Energis, LLC and Bebout and Associates, and unsurprisingly there is industrial backing and interest. Dr John Bebout who is the founder of Bebout and Associates, is quoted as saying:

"We believe that the methodologies and technologies being developed will result in high-quality biofuel that can compete in price per gallon with both current domestic biofuel production and imported fuels."

The truth is that algae are the only way to make biofuel on a significant scale and on marginal land, so as not to compromise crop production, and to anywhere nearly match the amount of fuel that is derived from crude oil. I think this is an optimistic development although bringing the technology to fruition on that kind of grand scale will take a significant lead-in time and probably not help us avoid the arrival of gap-oil as the effect of peak-oil begins to bite.

Related Reading.
"First crop of algae for biofuels a success."

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