Recent weeks have seen a whole host of advances in the field of algae based biofuels. Before I go into them, let's do a little recap of why algae is a much superior fuel source than most other biofuels for those new to this topic.
First off, algae can produce roughly 12x as much oil per acre than corn can produce in ethanol. This means that the US could, in theory, produce 100% of its fuel needs through algae in an area not much larger than Maryland. Next, algae production doesn't have to take up precious freshwater resources but can instead rely on saltwater, or even wastewater. Therefore, the use of algae instead of other biofuel crops could potentially limit the use of freshwater that has contributed to both lower water tables and disappearing wetlands.
Algae also doesn't have to be grown on agricultural land like biofuels derived from corn and soybeans, whose production has contributed to the rising costs of food worldwide. And lastly, if algae becomes a predominate source of fuel, the oil infrastructure will not have to be changed all that much. In theory, any refinery, oil pipelines, or fossil fuel burning engine could use oil derived from algae with little or no modifications made to it. For a more in-depth look at the benefits of algae, take a look at this Celsias.com article.
Now, what has happened this past couple weeks? Well Continental Airlines has announced that it will perform a test flight on January 7th using a 50:50 mixture of petroleum and biofuel derived from both jatropha and algae. While this isn't a 100% algae biofuel flight, it sure is a step in the right direction and shows that airlines are seriously looking into algae as a potential fuel source.
Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation also had a huge advance in this field by successfully creating a jet fuel component completely from wild algae strains. The following is from their press release:
The company announced today that its wild algae has been successfully refined to produce the world's first sample of synthetic paraffinic kerosene (SPK) converted from compounds derived from Aquaflow's wild algae. SPK, when blended with petroleum-based kerosene, can be used to power commercial and military aircraft.
"This is a major breakthrough and confirms that wild and naturally occurring algae and its components can produce quality, sustainable aviation fuel," says Aquaflow director, Nick Gerritsen.
(...)The wild algae sample also yielded a sample of diesel fuel.
"We are a company focused upon developing the sustainable production of green crude, similar to that which could be expected from mineral crude oil, and combining that with waste treatment and clean water production," comments Gerritsen.
Since other companies have already created jet fuel components from algae, the main thing to focus on here is the fact that Aquaflow did this from wild algae strains. This is significant because most companies out there are trying to find the "elite" strain of algae to use. After they presumably find this elite strain, the company will then have to ensure that no other strains contaminates the bioreactors or ponds used to grow the algae. With Aquaflow's discovery, they have illustrated that algae biofuels can be produced with wild algae strains we have right now, without any genetic modifications and without worrying about cross-contamination of algae strains.
The last piece of fairly exciting news in the area algae biofuel comes from Berkley, California. Here, researchers have found a way to genetically decrease the amount of chlorophyll in algae cells to make room for biofuel component production. These Berkley
researchers have determined that an algae organism can survive on as little as 130 chlorophyll molecules compared to the 600 they traditionally have. Therefore, "the scientists want to divert the normal function of photosynthesis from generating biomass to making products such as lipids, hydrocarbons, and hydrogen" which can be used in biofuels.
However, even with all these advances, one must always take these announcements with a grain of salt and remember that full-scale commercialization of algae biofuels could be years away. While some companies like Aquaflow claim to have already developed a commercially competitive process for producing "green crude", I would recommend approaching these claims with reserved optimism. While these companies may actually be able to produce algae biofuels at competitive prices, large-scale implementation is going to take a lot more time, work, and continued research before it becomes a reality.
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Image Credit: B.G. Oodwin