algae farming for biofuels

diatom image from http://edu.greensail.ruAccording to Dan Hutchinson, a New Zealand company backed by an international team of scientists is claiming a biofuel breakthrough by turning algae nutured on sewage waste into a viable diesel substitute. Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation was now increasing its capacity to produce one million litres over the next year from the Blenheim sewage ponds – a world first with the commercial production of biodiesel outside the laboratory. The process had been designed so that plants could be set up at sewage ponds anywhere, providing a large quantity of fuel close to markets. The new fuel could also be made from dairy farm effluent and waste from food-producing factories. Spokespeople from Aquaflow claimed the United States Department of Energy had identified algae as the most promising large-scale source of alternative fuel after the last oil shock.

In fact, some 300 algae and related species were identified from work done at the original National Renewable Energy Laboratory study ponds in California, Hawaii, and at Roswell, New Mexico. The study found the process was costly compared with fossil fuel at the time (1998) but the cost difference has significantly reduced or disappeared these days. The closeout report (authored by J. Sheehan, T.G. Dunahay, J.R. Benemann, P.G. Roessler, and J.C. Weissman) is a weighty 328 pages long and is available as a .pdf for free download.

The abstract: The Aquatic Species Program was a relatively small research effort intended to look at the use of aquatic plants as sources of energy. Its history dates back to 1978, but much of the research from 1978 to 1982 focused on using algae to produce hydrogen. The program switched emphasis to other transportation fuels, particularly biodiesel, beginning in the early 1980’s. This report summarizes the research activities carried out from 1980 to 1996, with an emphasis on algae for biodiesel production.

From the report:

High oil-producing algae can be used to produce biodiesel, a chemically modified natural oil that is emerging as an exciting new option for diesel engines. At the same time, algae technology provides a means for recycling waste carbon from fossil fuel combustion. Algal biodiesel is one of the only avenues available for high-volume re-use of CO2 generated in power plants. It is a technology that marries the potential need for carbon disposal in the electric utility industry with the need for clean-burning alternatives to petroleum in the transportation sector.

Freeengergy news reports there is significant international interest in the production of biofuels using aquatic plant species. Michael Briggs, from the University of New Hampshire, Physics Department, has published a report entitled Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae. From the report:

For any biofuel to succeed at replacing a large quantity of petroleum, the yield of fuel per acre needs to be as high as possible. At heart, biofuels are a form of solar energy, as plants use photosynthesis to convert solar energy into chemical energy stored in the form of oils, carbohydrates, proteins, etc.. The more efficient a particular plant is at converting that solar energy into chemical energy, the better it is from a biofuels perspective. Among the most photosynthetically efficient plants are various types of algaes.

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