Though there is much fanfare of the promise of algal biofuels and word of their commercial development, it seems timely to view what precisely has been achieved in terms of significant algal biofuel production and actual deployment. The vast majority of algal production and processing has been done merely in research laboratories, and has been ongoing for about 50 years, though clearly fundamental knowledge so garnered must underpin technical innovation. Scale-up can be considered as more of an engineering feat, mindful that handling and processing algae on the very large scale will turn-up particular and unheld challenges.
I have suggested previously that if Transition Towns arise, or some form of small communities that we must devolve to, algae could serve well grown on a scale to meet the needs of that community. I likened this kind of production to a "village pond", and indeed green algae are sometimes disparagingly referred to as "pond scum". However, there are efforts afoot to try and meet some of the needs for shipping and aviation, to break (particularly U.S.) dependency on imported crude oil and its products.
Thus, pride of place goes to the U.S. Navy, which has fuelled a destroyer ship using 20,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel for a 20-hour trip, and is its largest alternative fuel experiment to date. Thus a decommissioned destroyer made a successful journey from San Diego to Port Hueneme, in California. In terms of air-transport, United/Continental Airlines have made a second successful test flight powered by algal fuel, flying from Houston to Chicago. In 2011, over 100,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel was purchased to fuel the Navy's "Great Green Fleet" in addition to a number of separate tests of algae-derived fuels on various aircraft and boats. It is thought that by the end of 2012, the fleet will be fully operational, making the Navy an algal biofuel leader.
Privately funded efforts have been made to inaugurate commercial-scale algae farms on open-land, inside commercial buildings and in shipping containers, all of which has aided the National Algae Association to enhance its base of knowledge, research, collaboration and deployment opportunities. Clearly, there is a pivotal role for collaboration between universities, colleges, community colleges and the algae production companies to provide algal fuel on a significant scale.
Economically this year is unlikely to be any better than 2011, and so issues of expense, practical difficulty and that far more research is necessary before any serious production can be accomplished might act to militate against a significant development of algal biofuel. In view of the likely imminent arrival time of the supply-demand gap for conventional crude oil, it would make sense to spend more money on grand-scale algae production than on basic research alone.
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Year in Review Algae: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Reality? December 30, 2011