New Zealand-based Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation has been working on technology to convert wild algae to next generation fuels and has recently produced the first samples of green-crude from a proprietary process that does not rely on genetically modified organisms.
As we have covered previously on this site, algae based fuels are a promising second generation bio-fuel that may offer energy independence and a decreased reliance on fossil fuels without the negative consequences of agrofuels like ethanol that take up farm land adding to the current food crisis, are energetically inefficient and hog scarce water resources. Green-crude differs significantly from first generation biofuels because it is made solely from photosynthetic microorganisms (algae), which absorb sunlight, CO2 and nutrients found in waste streams or agricultural runoff. In essence, green-crude has the same origins as traditional oil reserves.
Just how promising is green crude as a replacement for petroleum?
The United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers), which is a few thousand square miles larger than Maryland, or 1.3 Belgiums This is less than 1/7th the area of corn harvested in the United States in 2000. - Wikipedia
And converted to biobutanol, existing gasoline engines can use it without any conversion or modification.
And how efficient is it?
Algae production does not compete with agriculture. Algae production facilities are closed and do not require soil for growth, use 99% less water than conventional agriculture, and can be located on non-agricultural land far from water. Since the whole organism converts sunlight into oil, algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two-car garage than an entire football field of soybeans. - Solix
The use of wild algae also mitigates two major biofuel downfalls; monopolization of land and water. Wild algae may be grown in wastewater so it doesn't require additional food crop or agricultural land. And Aquaflow sources its wild algae from the local municipal waste treatment oxidation ponds - essentially recycling a waste stream into a valuable product rather than using clean water.
I asked Aquaflow Chairman Barrie Leay to answer a question that had been bothering me about algae based fuels - if they are carbon based, don't they then release carbon when burned, and how is this any better than burning fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions?
Leay explained it this way:
There are misunderstandings and misconceptions about the chemical processes that take place in burning "renewable" compared with "fossil" fuel.
In an engine which burns fuel, the CO2 output is essentially the same whether fossil or biological the chemical equations are almost identical.
The huge difference is in the nature of the derivative fuel.
- Fossil fuel "banked" or "stored" carbon which it absorbed millions of years ago, and whilst it stays in the ground it remains "stored" and does not get released back into today's atmosphere.
- Biological fuel which was grown and harvested today, has just absorbed all its carbon from today's atmosphere through using solar energy and photosynthesis forming chlorophyll. So it absorbs the carbon dioxide first, before releasing it back to the atmosphere after being burnt in an engine, a closed loop cycle
So releasing "stored" fossil fuel which has not absorbed today's carbon dioxide, puts between 80% and 90% more CO2 back into today's atmosphere, according to the literature, which it harvested millions of years ago. It is this addition of "stored" carbon to the atmosphere through the use of coal and oil since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1750's that has created the Green House Gas increase and consequential Global Warming. Had we burned only biological fuels, as we did throughout history until the Industrial Revolution, we would in theory not have increased the CO2 content of the atmosphere.
Leay also says that outputs from the green-crude samples are showing similar or greater potential than existing mineral based petroleum products.
"We're continuing to explore the range of products that may be developed from green-crude. We are likely to end up with a suite of products that can literally be ‘dropped into' the existing petroleum fuels infrastructure," he comments.
"With the green-crude showing such promise we are now also concentrating on delivering high quality clean water in addition for irrigation or industrial re-use," adds Leay. "The process of removing wild micro-algae from wastewater removes a substantial amount of contaminants, leaving the effluent water much cleaner than with existing treatment systems. With further filtration and polishing the water may be reused for multiple purposes."
In other places, algae is being used for carbon capture and recycling as in the video below:
Seems that this rapidly renewing resource has a range of capabilities that we are only just beginning to explore.