Fuels of the Future: Biofuels from Algae

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Algae-a new oil producer?

Algae-a new oil producer?

  Fuel from Algae: Pond Scum is not All Bad. Is algae a new answer to the energy crisis? Can biofuels really be harvested from pond scum?  Energy-starved populations world-wide may be pleasantly surprised . Humanity needs to recognize and understand that algae is not only just a good potential fuel source, but a fantastic alternative potential source for biofuels. A significant development in the field of energy, common algae is now being examined far more carefully as a potential and substantial source of alternative, renewable and sustainable energy.

What is Algae?

Difficult to eliminate, and usually referred to with much disdain as “pond slime” or “pond scum”, the common algae known in scientific circles as cyanobacteria is a blue-green strain of algae that has always been considered an undesirable nuisance and an unwanted invasive growth, especially in home ponds, municipal water sources, or recreational bodies of water. Algae grows virtually in all geographical regions of the globe, but naturally grows faster in warm water. In moderately warm, temperate zones, thousands of different strains of algae express themselves as growths of variable colour ranging from shades of olive, yellow- green to bluish-green, or even to red varieties. Regardless of colour, algae is characteristically a non-vascular, fine string-like plant growth. Algae typically grows deep in the water, but as it grows and develops in optimal conditions, it cleverly adjusts it’s own buoyancy to optimize it’s depth for light and other growing conditions. In doing so, it can, and often does rise to the top, creating a surface bloom’, and grows rapidly, at times to thicknesses of 4″ or more, forming a floating, suffocating blanket on top of any quiet, or even slow-moving bodies of water. It eventually begins to die off, releasing toxins and creating the foul odour typical of decaying organic plant matter. The decaying matter typically sinks to the bottom of the water body or washed up on shore as an unsightly mess. Some algae must be avoided by swimmers and animals alike; for a number of strains of algae can generate hepatotoxins that attack the liver, neurotoxins that attack the nervous system, and other compounds that are skin irritants. Toxins released into the water when the algal cells rupture or die can make both animals and humans sick, or in the extreme, can  even be fatal. The presence of microcystins, a group of toxins produced by cyanobacteria in drinking water can be a serious problem. (1) Algae is also detrimental to aquatic environments for fish, for just as it grows, it dies off and decays, creating a high B.O.D., or biological oxygen demand , depleting oxygen levels in the water. Algae can, in the extreme,  cause major fish kills,  plug  pipes, foul navigation, and create difficulties for irrigation systems.  

Algae is not All Bad

Algae, however, is not all bad. It grows fast, consuming carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. It has beneficial characteristics, ecological purpose and properties. Beneficially, the growth of algae actually removes nutrients (such as phosphates and nitrates from detergents and fertilizers) from the water if the algal plant matter is subsequently removed from the water. Algae will also grow in, and clean up extremely poor quality, still, tepid, brackish, or severely polluted waste water.

 High Oil Content = Biofuels from Algae A relatively recent and timely discovery, some strains of algae have been found to contain as much as 50% oil by weight. Most recently, much attention has been focused on the fact the oils harvested from  algae can be converted to the most common biofuel already in use, biodiesel fuel. Other plant molecules of carbohydrates created by photosynthesis in the growth of algae can be converted to starches which can be fermented to produce ethanol, a clean-burning alcohol. The plant protein remaining can be processed to make animal feed, fertilizer and perhaps other uses yet to be discovered

Why is there so much excitement about oil derived from Algae? On a comparative basis, algae is amazingly far more productive because the rate of growth is unbelievably fast. Under ideal conditions some specific strains of algae may even double their weight every day, and in optimal, controlled conditions, cultivated algal systems, if designed correctly, may ultimately be suitable for continuous harvesting.

Let’s Compare Algae with known Biofuel Producers:

Compared to other oil-producing plants, the potential oil production from algae is no less than staggering.
  • Soybeans produce only 50 gallons of oil per acre, once a year.
  • Rapeseed, ( Canola) , an annual crop, provides 150 gallons of oil per acre.
  • Jatropha, a relative newcomer and a warm-climate nut-producing oil plant, can produce about 200 gallons of oil per acre.
  • Palm trees which are far more productive than oil grains, produce about 600 gallons of oil per year for each acre.
  • By comparison, strains of cyanobacteria algae may soon be genetically modified to produce an amazing 10,000 gallons of oil per acre for each year in production.
This incredible potential clearly must not be ignored . With over 100,000 different strains of cyanobacteria, there is much potential in their variety and also in the composition of algal protein, carbohydrates and oils. The economic potential of oils from algal sources is no less than astounding, and will ultimately use far less agricultural land to produce far greater quantities of biologically and environmentally acceptable fuels for the future.   On an industrial scale, sequestration and use of existing surplus waste carbon dioxide, and the subsequent infusion of that carbon dioxide into continuous algae reactors will elevate the process of the growth of algae to a beneficial, continuous, controlled and highly productive biofuels from algae  industry that can be located almost anywhere. Pond scum or not, the time for algae to grow beneficially for humanity may have arrived.     Is that Incoming I hear? 1. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/water-eau/cyanobacter-eng.php 2.. Pond-Powered Biofuels: Turning Algae into America’s New Energy http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/earth/4213775.html 3. Scipio Biofuels: www.scipiobiofuels.com   photo by JDurham (Morguefile) +FacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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