Going green: Nation equipped to grow serious amounts of pond scum for fuel

May 21, 2013 by Tom Rickey
An algae bloom in North Carolina, a region of the country equipped for broad-scale algae growth. Credit: Ildar Sagdejev

(Phys.org) —A new analysis shows that the nation's land and water resources could likely support the growth of enough algae to produce up to 25 billion gallons of algae-based fuel a year in the United States, one-twelfth of the country's yearly needs.

The findings come from an in-depth look at the that would be needed to grow significant amounts of in large, specially built shallow ponds. The results were published in the May 7 issue of Environmental Science and Technology, published by the American Chemical Society.

"While there are many details still to be worked out, we don't see water issues as a deal breaker for the development of an algae biofuels industry in many areas of the country," said first author Erik Venteris of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

For the best places to produce algae for fuel, think hot, humid and wet. Especially promising are the and the Southeastern seaboard.

"The Gulf Coast offers a good combination of , low evaporation, access to an abundance of water, and plenty of fuel-processing facilities," said hydrologist Mark Wigmosta, the leader of the team that did the analysis.

Wooing algae as fuel

Algae, it turns out, are plump with oil, and several research teams and companies are pursuing ways to improve the creation of biofuels based on algae – growing algae composed of more oil, creating algae that live longer and thrive in cooler temperatures, or devising new ways to separate out the useful oil from the rest of the algae.

But first, simply, the algae must grow. The chief requirements are sunlight and water. include clouds, a shortage of water, and evaporation.

A previous report by the same team looked mainly at how much demand algae farms would create for freshwater. That report demonstrated that oil based on algae have the potential to replace a significant portion of the nation's and drew the attention of President Obama.

The new report focuses on actual water supplies and looks at a range of possible sources of water, including fresh groundwater, salty or saline groundwater, and seawater. The team estimates that up to 25 billion gallons of algal oil could be produced annually, an increase of 4 billion gallons over the previous study's estimate. The new amount is enough to fill the nation's current oil needs for one month – about 600 million barrels – each year. The study's authors note that the new estimate is exactly that – an estimate – based to some degree on assumptions about land and water availability and use.

"I'm confident that algal biofuels can be part of the solution to our energy needs, but algal biofuels certainly aren't the whole solution," said Wigmosta. Most important, he notes that the cost of making the fuel far exceeds the cost of traditional gasoline-based products right now.

Big ponds, big potential

An algae farm would likely consist of many ponds, with water maybe six to 15 inches deep. A few companies have built smaller algae farms and are just beginning to churn out huge amounts of algae to convert to fuel; earlier this year, one company sold algae-based oil to customers in California. Players in the algae biofuels arena range from Exxon-Mobil, which launched a $600 million research effort four years ago, to this year's teenage winner of the Intel Science Talent Search, who was recognized for her work developing algae that produce more oil than they normally do.

The availability of water has been one of the biggest concerns regarding the adoption of broad-scale production of algal biofuel. Scientists estimate that fuel created with algae would use much more water than industrial processes used to harness energy from oil, wind, sunlight, or most other forms of raw energy. To produce 25 billion gallons of algae oil, the team estimates that the process annually would require the equivalent of about one-quarter of the amount of water that is now used each year in the entire United States for agriculture. While that is a huge amount, the team notes that the water would come from a multitude of sources: fresh groundwater, salty groundwater, and seawater.

For its analysis, the team limited the amount of freshwater that could be drawn in any one area, assuming that no more than 5 percent of a given watershed's mean annual water flow could be used in algae production. That number is a starting point, says Venteris, who notes that it's the same percentage that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows power plants to use for cooling.

"In arid areas such as the Desert Southwest, 5 percent is probably an overstatement of the amount of water available, but in many other areas that are a lot wetter, such as much of the East, it's likely that much more water would be available," says Venteris.

"While the nation's Desert Southwest has been considered a possible site for vast algae growth using saline water, rapid in this region make success there more challenging for low- cost production," Venteris added.

Venteris and colleagues weighed the pluses and minuses of the various water sources. They note that freshwater is cheap but in very limited supply in many areas. Saline groundwater is attractive because it's widely available but usually at a much deeper depth, requiring more equipment and technology to pump it to the surface and make it suitable for algae production. Seawater is plentiful, but would require much more infrastructure, most notably the creation of pipelines to move the water from the coast to processing plants.

The team notes that special circumstances, such as particularly tight water restrictions in some areas or severe drought or above-average rainfall in others, could affect its estimates of availability.

Explore further: Report heralds new $50 billion energy industry for Australia

More information: Erik R. Venteris, Richard L. Skaggs, Andre M. Coleman, and Mark S. Wigmosta, A GIS Cost Model to Assess the Availability of Freshwater, Seawater, and Saline Groundwater for Algal Biofuel Production in the United States, Environmental Science and Technology, dx.doi.org/10.1021/es304135b

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User comments : 17

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deatopmg
1 / 5 (8) May 21, 2013
More silliness! The most efficient algal oil producer, as opposed to triglycerides talked about here, Botrycoccus braunii var. Showa or Ninsei would have trouble doing what is claimed here.
betterexists
1 / 5 (7) May 21, 2013
We have been hearing very frequently about Biofuels.
The question is Who were stopping Research in these fields ALL THESE YEARS.
Is it not apt to investigate & take action upon them for depriving the Nation so badly.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (8) May 21, 2013
Growing crops or algae for biofuels will use too much water. In addition, without continuous application of fertilizers the soil will change into desert fast, because the harvest of biofuels removes the minerals from soil (phosphorus, sulphur and nitrogen in particular). The biofuels aren't sustainable energetic solution at all from this perspective.
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (8) May 21, 2013
Who were stopping Research in these fields ALL THESE YEARS.

Research only gets funded when there is a need. The awareness about ecological change and the ever mounting price of fossil fuels (direct and indirect) is only now starting to become apparent. Back in the 80's no one was much concerned - because we didn't really know. So not much money was allocated in that area.

Since then a lot of research has been done and some great strides have been made.

Research isn't like: "today we decide to do research and tomorrow we have a workeable prototype, and the next day we'll change the entire energy infrastructure". That's only in the movies.

It takes years - and often decades - until you get from "barely functional" to something that is actually useful. And often you try something for years and it turns out not to work at all.
hemitite
2.3 / 5 (6) May 21, 2013
"Rum tiddle tiddle tum tiddle tiddle scum on the water
Lint in your navel and sand in your tea!"
Benni
1 / 5 (10) May 21, 2013
The awareness about ecological change and the ever mounting price of fossil fuels


The discussion here is not about coal ( fossil fuel), it's about oil which is not a fossil fuel.

Research isn't like: "today we decide to do research and tomorrow we have a workeable prototype, and the next day we'll change the entire energy infrastructure". That's only in the movies.


.....or only in Europe. You see, in N America our engineers are smarter than your economics professors, we drill for the most abundant supplies of natural gas & oil on the planet placing us beyond "workeable prototypes"

It takes years - and often decades until you get from "barely functional" to something that is actually useful. And often you try something for years and it turns out not to work at all.


In your backward states of Europe this is the case because politicians there are not as smart as our engineers in N. America in coming up with real solutions, nat gas here is half of 4 yrs ago.
Howhot
5 / 5 (5) May 22, 2013
25 billion gallons/year of pond-scum fuel just from the US alone, makes for an attractive reason to use this CO2 neutral product. If it can be used to replace diesel fuel or jet fuels, it's impact on the worlds carbon foot print could be profound. And if it turns out to be cheap too, so much the better!
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (9) May 22, 2013
or only in Europe. You see, in N America our engineers are smarter than your economics professors, we drill for the most abundant supplies of natural gas & oil on the planet placing us beyond "workeable prototypes"

Well, America works by the principle "screw the children". Europe tries to be more sustainable. It's a difference in attitude, I guess.

Whatever floats your boat. But I really can't see that "cheap stuff now - pay the price later (or leave it to the next generation to clean up)" kind of attitude working forever.
Benni
1 / 5 (7) May 22, 2013
.. or only in Europe. You see, in N America our engineers are smarter than your economics professors, we drill for the most abundant supplies of natural gas & oil on the planet placing us beyond "workeable prototypes"


Well, America works by the principle "screw the children". Europe tries to be more sustainable. It's a difference in attitude, I guess.


You Europeans "screw the children" with your 20% unemployment rates & rising, ours is 7% & dropping. You want want to go on?

Whatever floats your boat. But I really can't see that "cheap stuff now - pay the price later (or leave it to the next generation to clean up)" kind of attitude working forever.


OK, I guess you do want to go on, so we will. Yes, I do have a boat, I paid a lot of money for it & operate it on fuel that's 1/3 the cost what you pay in Europe because our N American engineers are immeasurably innovative compared to your European Economic Professors who never saw a tax they didn't like.
kochevnik
4.5 / 5 (10) May 22, 2013
Wow is this Benni conservatard truly ranting about the US superiority based upon petrol pricing? So then annexed nations like Iraq should be a dreamland and not the powder-keg of uncontrollable sectarian religious violence portrayed in the news. Europe apparently sent all their retards and religious fucknuts to USA. Good move!
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) May 22, 2013
You Europeans "screw the children" with your 20% unemployment rates & rising, ours is 7% & dropping. You want want to go on?

BTW: EU-wide jobless rate as of 2013 (U3) is 10.9% (Euro-Zone: 11.1%) not 20% - and the US is 7.7%)

With great regional differences (Greece and Spain, for obvious reasons, with very high rates of 27% down to countries like Austria and Germany with about 5%)

That is U3 BTW (which omits a lot of unemployed people.)

And the numbers aren't really comparable since what constitutes an unemployed person is counted wildely differently depending on country. E.g in europe jobless people get money from unemployment-insurance and are therefore registered. I.e. the numbers are rather exact. While in the US numbers are calculated via phone surveys and there is no mandatory registration if you are jobless - so the numbers are pretty much guesswork.
Neinsense99
3.7 / 5 (9) May 25, 2013
A new analysis shows that the nation's land and water resources could likely support the growth of enough algae to produce up to 25 billion gallons of algae-based fuel a year in the United States, one-twelfth of the country's yearly needs.

Would that be actual 'needs', or a figure based on current usage of fossil fuels, which might not reflect real needs?
Read more at: http://phys.org/n...html#jCp
Neinsense99
3.8 / 5 (10) May 25, 2013
"The discussion here is not about coal ( fossil fuel), it's about oil which is not a fossil fuel." -- Benni

There is no magic fountain of abiotic oil formation, not outside of a debunked hypothesis favoured by creationists and those who don't like the idea of conserving oil resources.

http://rationalwi...otic_oil
Howhot
5 / 5 (4) May 26, 2013
Europe apparently sent all their retards and religious fucknuts to USA. Good move!


They did. Please Please Please, take them back. We don't want em.

FainAvis
5 / 5 (3) May 27, 2013
@Benni Oil is generated from biological materials and the processes of geology over millions of years. It is fossil in every way similar to coal. If you do not understand that then you are as dull, as dull as ditch water.
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) May 27, 2013
They did. Please Please Please, take them back. We don't want em.

Erm...he might have been referring to the original settlers. Without them it would justbe 'injun country'.

So unless you're of native american descent...

Neinsense99
3.7 / 5 (6) Jun 08, 2013
Growing crops or algae for biofuels will use too much water. In addition, without continuous application of fertilizers the soil will change into desert fast, because the harvest of biofuels removes the minerals from soil (phosphorus, sulphur and nitrogen in particular). The biofuels aren't sustainable energetic solution at all from this perspective.

Waste water from showers, etc. Make it part of the treatment process, not a drain on streams or aquifers.

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