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Biotech Power Science

Mutant Algae to Fuel Cars of Tomorrow? 158

Hugh Pickens writes "Algae has long been known as a promising source of biodiesel. It's worth noting, though, that algae also produces a small amount of hydrogen during photosynthesis. The MIT Technology Review reports that researchers have created a mutant algae that makes better use of sunlight to increase the amount of hydrogen that the algae produce. Anastasios Melis and his team at the University of California have manipulated the genes that control the amount of chlorophyll in the algae's chloroplasts. Although the process is still at least five years from being used for hydrogen generation, Melis estimates that if 50% of the algae's photosynthesis could be directed toward hydrogen production, an acre could produce 40 kilograms of hydrogen per day. At the price of $2.80 a kilogram, hydrogen could compete with gasoline, since a kilogram of hydrogen is equivalent in energy to a gallon of gasoline."
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Mutant Algae to Fuel Cars of Tomorrow?

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  • Feasible (Score:5, Informative)

    by chuckymonkey (1059244) <charles.d.burton@gm a i l .com> on Saturday September 29, 2007 @04:35AM (#20792253) Journal
    If they can make this work I think it's great. The current U.S. consumption of oil is about 5.2 Million bb/d [doe.gov], and there is about 950 Million acres of farmland as of 2002 [usda.gov]. One barrel of crude equals about 42 gallons of gasoline according to this [anl.gov]. So we can safely say that one acre is about a barrel of crude according TFA. I think that is very doable provided that it actually works. Much better solution than ethanol if you ask me, which has proven time and again that if we want to go with corn ethanol that there isn't enough farmland in the U.S. Now granted that 40kg is optimal so if we allow say 8 million acres for this I think we may even have a surplus of energy. That is the kind of idea I like to see.
    • Re:Feasible (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jcr (53032) <jcr@nosPam.mac.com> on Saturday September 29, 2007 @04:45AM (#20792289) Journal
      Ethanol is a corporate welfare scam. The government knows it, ADM and Gargil know it, the DOE knows it, and the politicians are hoping that you and I don't. Generating fuel from algae or bacteria would be so much better on so many levels than fermenting corn, I really hope it comes to fruition.

      Just imagine the effect on world politics if nobody cared who had control of the petroleum in the middle east, because it was selling for $4/bbl.

      • transition (Score:2, Interesting)

        by zogger (617870)
        Corn was never meant to be the perpetual energy fuel feedstock. It is being done as a transition fuel feedstock while other technologies, like this algae for instance, or cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass, etc, develop. And it is because we are set up to produce corn (and soybeans) in mass quantities with no infrastructure changes right now today, this season, it's happening. Just like the vehicle changes, we are transitioning from straight gashogs to hybrids to eventually plug in hybrids and hydrogen fue
        • Re:transition (Score:4, Interesting)

          by SunTzuWarmaster (930093) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @10:19AM (#20793545) Homepage
          No one ever seems to remember sugar cane and sugar beets, so I'll point it out. They are double the yield per acre (vastly more efficient but harder to grow) as compared to American corn.

          Well that's not entirely true, Brazil didn't forget. But then again, they don't have corn lobbyists.
          • Re:transition (Score:5, Insightful)

            by budgenator (254554) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @12:35PM (#20794535) Journal
            I live in sugar beet country and I can assure you that we didn't forget, I'm also in corn country so that gets a lot of noise as well. The real answer will be more like
            1. grow the corn,
            2. grow the beets,
            3. press out the oils out of the corn for food use,
            4. reclaim the used food stuff oils aned animal fats for biodiesel,
            5 extract the sugars from the corn, feed the distiller's dried grain and roughage back to the cows (makes food and animal fat for step 4)
            6. add beet sugar to the corn sugar and make Butanol [wikipedia.org] instead of inefficient Ethanol
            7. profit!

            I don't think there will ever be a one answer answer; the answer will be multi-use feed the waste of one almost economical process to the next almost economical process.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by thanatos_x (1086171)
      It's not a matter of how much farmland we have, it's oceans (or lakes, if it's a freshwater variety). If this works, it'd be a great boon to the environment - The algae removes C02 from the air, and creates H2, which unlike ethanol or other green fuels releases no CO2 back into the environment.

      Granted, there's an issue of oxygen removal from the water and disrupting the balance of an already stressed environment, but if it was done in largely dead ocean areas, this shouldn't be too much of a problem.

      Now if
      • It doesn't so much remove CO2 as give us a way to sequestor carbon. Also I don't think O2 would be a problem either. Let's do some chemistry here. It reales H2, which comes from where? H2O, that's right it strips the oxygen off the hydrogen leaving 2 Hydrogen and 1 Oxygen. Also, the carbon that it removes is stored as carbon in the plant's structure. This carbon comes from both the air and the food that is uses. I don't think that putting it in dead areas of the ocean would do much for the energy si
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by thanatos_x (1086171)
          The end result is the carbon is removed from the air. It's exactly like trees and other plants, albeit as a likely single celled organism the resulting structure it's stored in isn't usually as useful.

          Also I may be wrong, but I believe you'd still run into oxygen depletion in the ocean, though not directly from the algae. An algal bloom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algal_bloom [wikipedia.org] increases the amount of bacteria present to 'eat' the algae. These bacteria use the oxygen dissolved in the water, and eventually mo
        • Re:Feasible (Score:5, Insightful)

          by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <Satanicpuppy@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Saturday September 29, 2007 @05:29AM (#20792383) Journal
          It produces nearly enough hydrogen per acre to make "backyard" hydrogen farms feasible.

          Instead of thinking entirely in terms of big honking swaths of farmland covered in algae, think of 5 or 6 vertical tanks in every backyard, producing ~4kg of hydrogen a day. That would cover automotive energy needs for the average person, probably with some left over.

          Also, while farming this stuff right in the ocean wouldn't make much sense, floating farms would be practical, and a good use of space.

          I'm a big fan of the idea of using the kind of space that we already waste for energy production (e.g the tops of every wal-mart in america covered in solar cells). Even a land efficient method like this one could benefit from using parts of land that we already use for another, non-conflicting, purpose.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by chuckymonkey (1059244)
            I like the way you think. Putting them in the backyard definately would solve most of the storage problem, and if I'm not mistaken (not sure about this breed) couldn't you feed the algae your housewaste including graywater?
            • Depends exactly what chemicals you use in your sinks/laundry. Standard soaps would probably be alright in limited quantities, but i'd be very cautious about bleach or drain cleaners, etc.

              The algae might actually thrive from blackwater - Urine is the primary method for removing nitrogen from the body, and feces generally contain nutrients necessary for plants. Considering that algae thrives from nitrogen and phosphorous...

              But in the end if you can find a sanitary way to do this, I could envision a method of
              • by Hadlock (143607)
                Feces also contain competing bacteria that inefficently produce methane!. Unless your majic H2 plant is powering a UV sterilizer, that bacteria is more than likely going to compete with whatever's in the waste you send it, decreasing efficency, and leading to you having to clean it out 2-3 times a week.
              • by CastrTroy (595695)
                We'd even have good reason to switch back to detergents with phosphates. From what I remember they took the phosphates out because it was causing increased algae production, which killed off a lot of the other life in the lake. If we're just using the water to feed the algae, we might as well put phosphates in the soap.
          • Can you get enough sun light and CO2 in your backyard?

            Assuming you have 10 square meters yard, the sun shine's energy input is 1000W per square meter, you get 10 hours of sun shine per day, then you have 100,000Wh energy input. Assume 10% photosynthesis energy convert efficiency (this assumption is too high, 1%-5% is better but for the ease of calculation, I will use 10%), you will get 10,000Wh energy into hydrogen, that's 36MJ.

            One kilogram of hydrogen has 143MJ of energy. Then to produce 1kg of hydro

            • by famebait (450028)
              I don't think we need to calculate the CO2 input now

              I know this was your point, and I agree, but just a few minor comments:

              Translate "yard" to "rooftop or other available area", and suddenly 40m2 isn't that much of a deal.
              in addition, as with solar cells, the best efficiency is obtained when angling the surface at a right angle to the incoming light (or an unmoving angle that optimizes that angle for the best-yield hours of the day).
              Unless you are near the equator, the footprint on the ground can be signifi
              • Yea, that's pretty much what I was thinking. Hell, using clear plastic piping, and a small pump, you could circulate masses of the stuff (gently, I'd imagine) through an array of tubes (much like the internet) that could be set up on any kind of flat surface...Much the same as a big solar water heater. Put a T bend every now and then to pull the hydrogen out, and you're good to go.

                Smarter people than me will work out the ideal deployments, but it's silly to think in terms of 2 dimensional space when we live
          • by famebait (450028)
            Instead of thinking entirely in terms of big honking swaths of farmland covered in algae,

            Will people stop saying "farmlad" all the time? Yes, conventinal biofuels require farmland, and that is aming its greatest weknesses, but this here is a green soup that bubbles out hydrogen if you give it sunlight. It doesn't need soil at all, but it does need large areas. It would make no sense to place such a facility on valuable farmland.
            • by famebait (450028)
              Will people stop saying "farmlad" all the time?

              Or "farmland", for that matter. While I appreciate that some may see the aesthetic qualities of dumping great big bio-hydrogen production plants on top of farmlads, I doubt if it would make any economic sense in the long term.
              • "Farm lads gone wild"
                "Naked Farm lad algae wrestling"
                "You're not the usual algae delivery boy"

                The economic possibilities of farm lads are nothing to sneeze at.
          • Maybe it would be better to come up with a solar system that could be deployed in parking lots. I've thought about the Walmart [wikipedia.org] roof scenario, too, but it seems like roofs are a problematic place for solar installations. Most roofs are somewhat fragile, and are not really designed to sustain much human activity, aside from repairing the roof. Flat roofs are particularly problematic in this sense. Furthermore, most roofs are not really designed to support much more weight than they already do (limited air
          • Tops of wal-marts and other buildings covered in algae ponds: produce the biodiesel where the fuel needs are, so you don't have to truck stuff in from the deserts of the Southwest, which would be the second most likely place to occupy chunks of land to minimize loss of farmland.
      • by famebait (450028)
        It's not a matter of how much farmland we have, it's oceans

        It's neither.
        For there to be any point you need to capture the generated hydrogen, so the soup needs to be enclosed; you can't just throw the little buggers into the ocean.

        Sure, you could make offshore h2 plants of this kind, but it's a lot of extra running costs, and the only benefit would be free 'land' to keep it on. The first decades of viable plants like this would be on land. But not farmland. It doesn't use the soil, so why pay for it. The
      • How are you going to collect the hydrogen for fuel? OOPs forgot about that didn't we.
    • Re:Feasible (Score:4, Informative)

      by DDLKermit007 (911046) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @05:27AM (#20792371)
      Don't count on this getting too far. Corn producers have their heels into politicians pretty good on the matter, and Hydrogen has this problem of being very hard to contain with a problem of brittling most metals used to contain it outside of titanium.
      • Oh trust me, I don't have much faith in the system. I do realize that it's probably a pipe dream, I'm just saying that it could be possible and that this kind of thinking is definately a good thing. Storage is a problem, but I don't think that it's insurmountable.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by HangingChad (677530)

      There's another bonus with oil producing algae, it can grow in brackish water and eat sewage [unh.edu].

      What algae lacks is a powerful lobby in Washington like the corporate farms and corn sweetener have. It would also threaten a large volume of the petroleum supply chain. Since so much of our foreign policy seems centered around protecting Saudi Arabia's cash flow (when we're not arming Israel), I can't imagine our government getting behind algae production.

      Not like energy independence should be a national stra

      • by famebait (450028)
        Well, the good news is you only need money for the research. Once a suitable strain of algae (or whatever we plant the capability into) is there, the horizon for profit should draw near enough for private enterprise to waltz all over corn-ethanol i the marketplace in a matter of years.

        Not in cars first of course. Single factories and other businesses burning fuels today, seeing they can save money by switching to hydrogen, leading to a rudimentary backbone distribution network gradually built, then some di
  • Nice work, but... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jcr (53032) <jcr@nosPam.mac.com> on Saturday September 29, 2007 @04:39AM (#20792277) Journal
    At $2.8 per Kg, this would be one of the cheapest ways yet to extract hydrogen, but it still leaves the problem of containing it in a vehicle, the cost of building the fuel cell or engine you'd burn it in, and so on. The fact is that gasoline has an incredible energy density by volume, and in absolute terms, it's still very, very cheap.

    Something I find rather more promising is the work described in an earlier MIT review article, where bacteria are being modified to make gasoline directly. [technologyreview.com] Just like petroleum-based gasoline, except that it's carbon-neutral, and sulphur-free. We're talking gasoline from anything that E. coli can ferment.

    • Hydrogen does have quite a lot of energy bang for the buck, though since it's a gas vs a liquid, the comparison by volume is kinda flawed. I'm pretty sure that as a liquid it has considerably more energy density than gasoline, but it is a bitch to keep compressed like that and it's insanely volatile.

      So many problems to solve? Yes. But chalking one off the list is a good thing, reducing the fundamental problem with hydrogen power - the fact that the variable cost was so high. If there's an abundant energy ri
      • The same solution is required, a hybrid which can implement the old way and new way reasonably well (70+%) of a pure implementation of both.
        Nope. The "solution" is a pressing need to move from one to the other. x86 will be around for a long time because there's no significant end-user benefit to ditching it. Hyrogen vs. Gasoline, on the other hand...
      • Hydrogen is quite a bit trickier to store than liquid fuels. You need either a pressure vessel, cryogenic storage, or a gigantic gas bag. All of which have their issues, and that's before considering diffusion (H2 is really, really small and will diffuse through just about anything given enough time) and its related problem, hydrogen embrittlement.

        It is not at all unintuitive to believe that the cars of the future will be powered by liquid hydrocarbons, with only the source of those hydrocarbons in questi
  • Is it to much to ask (Score:3, Interesting)

    by onyxruby (118189) <onyxruby@NoSpAM.comcast.net> on Saturday September 29, 2007 @04:43AM (#20792283)
    Is it to much to ask to get reference links with more credibility than wikipedia? I mean, come on, is it really that hard to find a credible source to reference? For pete's sake even wikipedia claims it should /not/ be sourced as a cite, only a starting point.
    • by vertinox (846076)
      Is it to much to ask to get reference links with more credibility than wikipedia?

      Umm... There were two links, the second link being the actual article with interview and links to sources at laboratories doing the research. I'm assuming the first link in the summary to Wikipedia was to familiarize anyone with the concept of using algea as a source of biofuels.

      Seeing there are no online encyclopedias or organizations devoted to algea farming (as of now) Wikipedia seems to be the perfect place to explain the c
  • H2 Panacea (Score:2, Interesting)

    by pipingguy (566974) *
    Once it's produced, how do you store it? I confess that I now (sort of) work for evil "big oil" but I do have some experience with the practicalities of storing and transporting hydrogen.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by The_Dougster (308194)

      Once it's produced, how do you store it? I confess that I now (sort of) work for evil "big oil" but I do have some experience with the practicalities of storing and transporting hydrogen.

      Thats a pretty good question there! I'd recommend using Metastable Metallic Hydrogen [wikipedia.org] personally, except there's a small issue that nobody has exactly figured out how to make the stuff yet.

      That being said, I always thought that good old Ammonia (NH4) had some nice potential for hydrogen storage. Its easily liquefied at

      • Why no mention of Hydrogen Boraxate?

        It has its own problems, but explosive and/or highly poisonous aren't among them.

    • Hmm, most people conveniently ignore the impracticalities of H2. It is far better to combine H2 with Carbon and turn it into a liquid, than to try and contain a gas with an incredibly small molecule size that can pass through steel.
  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @05:06AM (#20792335) Homepage

    If "a kilogram of hydrogen is equivalent in energy to a gallon of gasoline" then, estimating [howstuffworks.com] about 400 million gallons of gas per day used by the US, we will need 10 million acres of algae farm. That is with the assumption that they obtain their optimal output, and no additional energy is expended for processing, transport, etc.

    By contrast, an average nuclear power plant produces 1000 megawatts of energy. Also assuming optimum efficiency, we get (10^9 joules pers second * (60 * 60 *24) seconds per day / (237.1*10^3 joules to electrolyze 1 mole of hydrogen at 298K) * 1.01 grams/mole = 368,047 kilograms of hydrogen per day.

    So... 10 nuclear plants, or 10 million acres of algae farm?

    Let's not forget that your algae farm will stop photosynthesizing when it's cloudy out.

    • by eniac42 (1144799) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @07:12AM (#20792561) Journal
      Hmm.. Or for 10 Gigawatts, you could use a solar plant about 10x10 miles in the Nevada desert. This sceme http://www.reuk.co.uk/Nevada-Solar-One.htm [reuk.co.uk] Delivers 64 Mw for 350 acres = 45 watts per sqr meter. 10 x10 miles = 260 000 000 m2, x 45 (watts) = 11.7 GigaWatt supply. Yup ok, day only - but you are charging car batteries, so you could work out a scheme that does that in the day. They reckon it costs around $0.07/Kwh.

      You are right on one thing though - probably better to just generate & use electricity directly than to mess about with Hydrogen, etc. Think of all the plastic/glass you would need to contain the algea and collect the gas..
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by grimJester (890090)
      The US has around 940 million acres of farmland (source [usda.gov]). A single percent of this would be enough to fuel all the cars in the country. It's not necessarily the most efficient option but certainly doable.
    • by Alsee (515537)
      So... 10 nuclear plants, or 10 million acres of algae farm?
      Let's not forget that your algae farm will stop photosynthesizing when it's cloudy out.

      Algae farms especially stop photosynthesizing when it's nuclear-cloud-y out.

      Actually I support nuclear power as safe clean energy, but I couldn't resist making the joke anyway.

  • It sort of pains me to see all these touted solutions to fuel and energy when we have perfectly valid (and economical ) solutions available. Use Nuclear to generate electricity and hydrogen, short to medium distance travel use batteries, long distance and aviation can use hydrogen or electricity. Heck, when you factor in service costs batteries are already starting to become competitive for cars, electric trains are well tested, and it has been demonstrated several times that powering jet engines on cryoge
  • by Chemisor (97276) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @06:46AM (#20792483)
    Let me introduce you to an advanced technology vehicle I've been researching for years. It runs on nothing but pure cellulose in form of grass and so is very environmentally friendly. I call it a "horse". It requires no fossil fuels and is surely the transportation of the future.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by dvice_null (981029)
      Actually horses are not that environment friendly, they produce pollution from both ends.
    • The downside of the horse is that it is unsuited to high density urban environments. Not without reason is the horseman a symbol of the aristocracy. If New York or London had the same horse population as they currently have cars, nothing would move because of the height of the horse dung (and no technical solution to removing it without powered transport.) Even in 18th century England, there was a profitable occupation in large cities of "crossing-sweeper", i.e. somebody who cleaned the dung off a section a
      • by Chemisor (97276)
        > nothing would move because of the height of the horse dung (and no technical
        > solution to removing it without powered transport.)

        Just as cars can be powered by horses, so can the vehicles of the dung sweepers. Horseshit is a valuable fertilizer for the agricultural industry. I am sure someone can make a profit collecting it and selling it. It won't be much, but hey, the shit is free, so there has to be some money there.

        > If New York or London had the same horse population as they currently have c
        • On a hot, sunny, windy day, horse droppings dry quickly and become airborne. The result is an ugly, stinky mess spreading disease and filth everywhere. It has been pointed out previously that cities are more energy-efficient than rural and suburban areas, so if cities have to be depleted to accomodate horses, the country's net energy use might rise.
  • same question as the last time [slashdot.org] - be careful what you release into the wild.
    • by taricha (1115245)
      In general, by genetically modifying something we make it less fit in a survival sense. Look at all the plants and animals we've domesticated for our use by hybridization. They hardly run rampant destroying their wild cousins. In fact they'd be dead without our help, because we've reduced their fitness by making them overproduce some aspect we are interested in. This algae is no different. The modification actually makes each cell absorb less light so it absorbs only what it can use allowing the sunlight to
  • ...then the governments of the developed world will find ways to:

    a. stifle it while there's still fossil fuels to be had (ie with prohibitive taxation)

    b. stifle the technology which utilises it (by classifying it for military use)

    c. bud off private concerns (or use existing military contractors) who then go on a patent grab for said technology, making an example of anyone who tried it (yes, you, Mr. Hobbyist!)

    d. license favoured concerns to (under)develop and (under)utilise the technology until such time as
  • They're supposed to be one of the worst manure polluters around. Right now, the pig shit is just waste matter. If they could use this as feedstock for the algae ponds, suddenly it has a monetary value. This could be a good thing, environmentally speaking.
  • Where else can you wake up on a Saturday morning and read an article about mutant algae fuels.
  • It's not clear from the summary, but I assume that this algae can still be used for biodiesel. Harvesting both might make the economics work out that much sooner.

    That said, I don't know anything about algae for energy. I just know that I hate seeing the stuff when I'm on a lake (that isn't supposed to have algae).
  • Chlamydomonas (Score:3, Interesting)

    by primenerd (100899) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @04:53PM (#20796241)
    I work on Chlamydomonas (single celled eukaryotic algae) biochemistry.
    These little fellas are tough. Give them a few basic nutrients (phosphates, trace minerals) sunlight and air and they will grow like weeds. They can be autotrophic (using light) or heterotrophic if you give them a carbon source (like those found in sewage and agricultural waste). People have also had great success growing these by bubbling the exhaust from incinerators through liquid cultures (exhaust is rich in CO2 and NOx which Chlamy can use). Chlamy has been extensively studied (the genome of C. reinhardtii has been sequenced) and there is a huge library of mutants already available. I saw a presentation at an algae conference last year by people working on this. Holy grail is getting hydrogen while they are growing, then extract oil.
    Best of all, they are completely harmless (trust me, if they were in any way dangerous I would be dead by now).
    Algal biodiesel and butanol from agricultural waste are our best hope. Ethanol from food crops is basically a big give-away to agribusiness companies. While hydrogen is promising, biologically derived liquid hydrocarbons can take advantage of the extensive infrastructure that has been built for petroleum fuels.
  • ...it will be killed by big oil before we're ever allowed to see it.

    The only time the petroleum industry is going to allow hydrogen as a viable fuel source to exist is if a) oil becomes sufficiently rare that it causes societal collapse, and b) said industry can entirely control hydrogen production and continue to make the same kinds of usurious profits from it that they have customarily made from oil.

The hardest part of climbing the ladder of success is getting through the crowd at the bottom.