First Samples of Algae Based Green-Crude Have Arrived

pouring oilNew 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

Barrie LeayThe 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. 

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

Further Reading:

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Prof. Hnas-Jürgen Franke - Brazil (anonymous)


University of Hawai'i Professor Pengchen "Patrick" Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there's still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.


Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to "harvest" continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH's Shidler College of Business.

The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation's and the world's major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That's different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu's technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the photobioreactor.

Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju - Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke - is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a major cause of global warming.

Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil - 23/10/2008

Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail:
Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail:

Telefon: 00-55-79-3243-2209

Written in October 2008

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