Algae: Biofuel of the future?

Aug 19, 2008

University of Virginia researchers have a plan to greatly increase algae oil yields by feeding the algae extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) and organic material like sewage, meaning the algae could simultaneously produce biofuel and clean up environmental problems.

In the world of alternative fuels, there may be nothing greener than pond scum.

Algae are tiny biological factories that use photosynthesis to transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy so efficiently that they can double their weight several times a day, producing oil in the process — 30 times more oil per acre than soybeans, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Like soybean oil, the algae oil can be burned directly in diesel engines or further refined into biodiesel.

University of Virginia researchers have a plan to greatly increase algae oil yields by feeding the algae extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) and organic material like sewage, meaning the algae could simultaneously produce biofuel and clean up environmental problems.

"We have to prove these two things to show that we really are getting a free lunch," said Lisa Colosi, a U.Va. professor of civil and environmental engineering who is part of the interdisciplinary research team.

Most previous and current research on algae biofuel, explained Colosi, has used the algae in a manner similar to its natural state — essentially letting it grow in water with just the naturally occurring inputs of atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight. This approach results in a rather low yield of oil — about 1 percent by weight of the algae.

The U.Va. team hypothesizes that feeding the algae more carbon dioxide and organic material could boost the oil yield to as much as 40 percent by weight, Colosi said.

Proving that the algae can thrive with increased inputs of either carbon dioxide or untreated sewage solids will confirm its industrial ecology possibilities — to help with wastewater treatment, where dealing with solids is one of the most expensive challenges, or to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, such as coal power-plant flue gas, which contains about 10 to 30 times as much carbon dioxide as normal air.

Research partner Mark White, a U.Va. finance professor, will be quantifying the big-picture environmental and economic benefits of algae biofuel compared to soy-based biodiesel under several hypothetical scenarios. For instance, if the nation instituted a carbon cap-and-trade system, that would increase the monetary value of algae's ability to dispose of carbon dioxide. Increased nitrogen regulations would also bump up the appeal of algae, since it can also remove nitrogen from air or water.

"The main principle of industrial ecology is to try and use our waste products to produce something of value," Colosi said.

This research will quantify just how much "free lunch" algae biofuel promises.

Source: University of Virginia

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User comments : 12

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Rick69
2.1 / 5 (7) Aug 19, 2008
They have a "plan" to try this! Why not wait and write this article after they have actually done something. This is just theory so far.
EnergyNerd
3 / 5 (5) Aug 19, 2008
How can this be "new" research? A company called GreenFuel Technologies in Cambridge, MA has been growing algae for fuel, using carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, for years. Their projects have had mixed success, but this article reports the U. Va. project as though their proposed approach was entirely novel. It's not. Dig beneath the press releases, guys.
deatopmg
3 / 5 (5) Aug 19, 2008
EnergyNerd; it is "new".........to them.

"show me a grad student who has a new idea and I'll show you a grad student who hasn't read the literature."
Alopes
3.6 / 5 (7) Aug 19, 2008
we have the same tecnology in Portugal and we have 2 "big" dimention pants producing algea and biofuel. Our photo reactors have 4 years old so this is not a "new" research. For the last 4 years we were telling that using agriculture products to make biofuel was a very bad idea...
BDUB
1 / 5 (5) Aug 19, 2008
It is new that increasing CO2 concentration increases biomass either. Welcome to the show, guys.
FastEther
2.6 / 5 (10) Aug 19, 2008
CO2 is not the "main" greenhouse gas. Water vapour is.
finfife
4 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2008
"Increased nitrogen regulations would also bump up the appeal of algae, since it can also remove nitrogen from air or water."

Good luck. Air is naturally 78% nitrogen. Obviously, the author means oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
Plurk
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 22, 2008
CO2 is not the "main" greenhouse gas. Water vapour is.


Good thing you put "main" between quotation-marks, because that's only true for abundance and certainly not for (influence on) radiative forcing. The premise of your comment is hogwash, but unfortunately that's usually lost on the average Joe without a basic understanding of climatology. No offense.
gmurphy
not rated yet Aug 23, 2008
plurk, thank you for making that point, I hadn't known about radiative forcing until now. That's another fact in my arsenal against GW naysayers, not that facts make much difference to those people anyway. There were people who maintained that the earth was round, that the earth was at the center of the solar system and that mankind were not related to apes. The people who rail so desperately against acceptance that the planet is warming up because of CO2 we put into the atmosphere fall in the same category.
Soylent
5 / 5 (1) Aug 23, 2008
Good thing you put "main" between quotation-marks, because that's only true for abundance and certainly not for (influence on) radiative forcing.


No, water vapour is by far the most important radiative forcing. But water vapour follows temperature; if you pump more into the atmosphere it doesn't stay there for very long.
gillawat
5 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2008
Opelika, AL - On Monday, May 19, 2008, for the first known time in American history, vehicles will be powered by algae based fuel

http://algae.tcoa...els.com/


http://algae.tcoa...els.com/2008/05/14/vehicles-to-be-powered-with-algae-oil-first-known-time-in-american-history
Bazz
not rated yet Sep 23, 2008
Water vapor is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas and accounts for the largest percentage of the greenhouse effect, between 36% and 66%.[23] Water vapor concentrations fluctuate regionally, but human activity does not directly affect water vapor concentrations except at local scales (for example, near irrigated fields).

The Clausius-Clapeyron relation establishes that warmer air can hold more water vapor per unit volume. Current state-of-the-art climate models predict that increasing water vapor concentrations in warmer air will amplify the greenhouse effect created by anthropogenic greenhouse gases while maintaining nearly constant relative humidity. Thus water vapor acts as a positive feedback to the forcing provided by greenhouse gases such as CO2.