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Power Science

Newest Energy Source — Pond Scum 289

An anonymous reader writes to tell us that several start up companies include one from MIT are looking at using (both natural and engineered) algae as source of bio-fuel. Since algae grows quickly and absorbs green house gases. From the article "Soybeans can give you 50 to 60 gallons of oil an acre compared to 75 to 125 gallons for canola, but algae is almost limitless because it grows so fast, so potentially you could get 10,000 gallons per acre."
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Newest Energy Source — Pond Scum

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  • by roguerez ( 319598 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @06:26PM (#17381908) Homepage
    A Look Back at the
    U.S. Department of Energy's
    Aquatic Species Program:
    Biodiesel from Algae []
  • Re:another bio-craps (Score:5, Informative)

    by Scarblac ( 122480 ) <> on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @06:35PM (#17382004) Homepage

    Why don't they look at how to make liquified coal cheaper and better?

    Firstly, "they" are of course looking at that. The fact that some scientists work on biodiesel does not mean that nobody is looking at liquified coal.

    Secondly, liquified coal doesn't do anything towards solving the CO2 problem, so biodiesel should always be preferable.

  • by grimJester ( 890090 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:00PM (#17382242)
    An alternative approach: Hydrogen from algae []. (PDF warning, scroll to page 4)

    Ah, dammit, the Wikipedia page [] is easier.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:01PM (#17382256)
    A company 'Changing World Technologies' got a lot of attention a few years ago by announcing that they could convert garbage to oil. They set up their processing plant next to a plant that processes turkeys so they could use the waste turkey guts. For the last few years they have been going to reach plant capacity "real soon".

    Converting biological material to fuel hasn't become an economically sustainable technology yet in spite of the number of people working on the problem. I'll believe that algae can solve our energy woes when it actually comes about. For the time being, I'm skeptical. logies []
  • A lot more than oil (Score:5, Informative)

    by Baldrson ( 78598 ) * on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:04PM (#17382280) Homepage Journal
    The value of algae farming is a lot more than mere fuel oil. Algae is at the base of the food chain. If we're going to take responsibility for support of human populations whether terrestrial or beyond earth -- algae will be very crucial.

    There is a great need to increase world-wide carrying capacity without impacting high biodiversity ecosystems such as the Brazilian rainforests or continental shelf fisheries [], and that reduces greenhouse phenomena. There may be an economic option that uses sea water pumped to desert areas powered by the fact that ground level temperatures are much higher than temperatures at high altitudes. Indeed, it would dump greenhouse heat to space for its power while producing biodiesel, electricity, fish, fresh water, salt and real estate -- all in quantities demanded by developed-world populations -- without adding to, and possibly even sequestering, greenhouse gases.

    Proposals for solar updraft tower []s have typically assumed that they would be single use structures: solar to electricity via heat differentials between high altitude air and ground level greenhouse-enclosed air. The resulting system has marginal economic value.

    Something which would further enhance the value of the solar updraft tower power structure is to use the greenhouse area for algae ponds to add biodiesel, water, fish and salt production to the production of electricity normally envisioned.

    Doing so brings the proposal from marginally viable to viable, with a net present value, primarily from live fish production, of $3.5 billion per system, thereby allowing for far higher capitalization and/or return on investment.

    Let's start with just the value of algae biodiesel:

    The greenhouse area required per solar updraft tower of [] is huge:

    (pi * (5km/2)^2) ? hectares
    = 1963.49 hectares

    producing peak at peak 200MW via a 1km tall tower.

    We now add to this the production of algae biodiesel:

    The UNH estimate [] for algae biodiesel production is 1 quad per 200,000 hectares. Let's assume only half of the area of the solar updraft tower greenhouse would be available for production at any time (the other half would be used for ponds that buffered heat for the inner ponds, produce fish, provide additional evaporative surface for desalination and provide recreation for residential areas at the outer rim).

    That gives us:

    (1963.49/2)hectares/tower;200000hectares/quad ? towers/quad
    = 203.719 towers/quad

    Or about 200 towers per quad of biodiesel.

    We can now calculate the biodiesel per tower:

    7.2gallon/1e6btu;200tower/quad ? gallon/tower
    = 3.5998E+07 gallon/tower

    or about 35M gallons of biodiesel per year per tower.

    At $2/gallon for wholesale diesel, this yields $70M biodiesel revenue per year.

    Now for electrical revenue:

    At an average rate of sold production only 1/2 (100MW) of peak capacity (200MW), electrical production per tower per year, is:

    100MW;year ? GWh
    = 876 GWh

    At $30/MWh wholesale []:

    100MW;year;30$/MWh ? $
    = 2.628E+07 $

    or about $25M electrical revenue per year.

    Interestingly, the biodiesel revenue is nearly 3 times the electrical revenue of a solar updraft tower!

    200*200MW or 40GW electrical peak capacity is produced per quad of biodiesel.

    Further that same UNH document estimates 19 quads to replace all transportation fuel in the US or 3800 towers, which would also produce 3800*200MW or 760GW or .76TW of electricity.

    Current winter capacity in the US i []

  • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:08PM (#17382310)

    From a quick scan - "Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs".

    If that was in 1998, then at should be very feasible with current petrol costs, especially taking into account the added value of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    Indeed so! The 2006 inflation adjusted price in 1998 was $18 a barrel, last I checked it was three and half times this right now. In fact the average inflation adjusted price over the last 33 years is about double the 1998 price.

    If the DOE algae biodiesel cost estimate is correct then it has already been on average a break-even technology for a third of a century.

    Both the total world production of oil and the production of oil available for export are peaking about right now. This has been predicted for years: [] and current studies verify this.

    Thus the cost of oil is not likely to experience any significant downward trend from now on, ever.

    The original article's production estimates are a bit suspect though. The 20,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre they give as the upper range of production is 47 g/square meter a day. The DOE gives a maximum annual production of 50 g/square meter of algae (not biodiesel) a day.

    Still, the technology looks really good.

  • by Pegasus ( 13291 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:18PM (#17382386) Homepage
    There were some experiments (even mentioned on /.) that came up with the lack of the iron in the seawater as the limiting factor for algae growth in the seas. IIRC they seeded a small area in the sea with some iron oxyde solution or something and watched it turn green in a couple of hours.
  • by RoffleTheWaffle ( 916980 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:20PM (#17382406) Journal
    I did a bit of research on this sort of thing. Apparently that 10K or more gallons per-hectare - not acre, according to everything else I've read so far - is achieved yearly.

    Kind of impressive, considering how small a chunk of land that is.
  • by cartman ( 18204 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:22PM (#17382424)
    Are the algae they are having success with compatible with salt water? Or are any salt water algae suitable for producing biofuel?

    Yes. The fastest-growing and oiliest algae are diatoms, which are saltwater microscopic organisms.

    One of the major advantages of biofuel from algae, is that it grows quickly in saltwater ponds in hot areas like New Mexico. As a result, no fresh water or farmland is wasted. Also the land wasn't being used for anything else. Also, algal fuel is carbon-neutral (it sucks up as much CO2 as is released by burning it) so it doesn't contribute to global warming.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:29PM (#17382498)
    The problem is, taking into account inflation, in constant dollars, oil costs less today than it did 30 years ago. Yes, even at $4/gallon.
    Bull []. 30 years ago gas was $2/gal in inflation-adjusted dollars, not over $4. Even during the darkest days of the gas crisis in the early 80s, the annual average reached "only" $3/gal in today's dollars, a situation that was equaled last year.
  • by Zobeid ( 314469 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:42PM (#17382592)
    It doesn't need fresh water, you can grow algae in sea water -- something our world still has no shortage of. So. . . Do we know any countries with warm and sunny deserts adjacent to the coast? I can think of a few. Hmm. . . Saudi Arabia just might end up becoming the Saudi Arabia of biofuels!

    It might also be possible to put your facilities onto floating platforms offshore. There's lots of possibilities.
  • by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @07:47PM (#17382650) Homepage Journal
    The plant has been running for a couple of years now, producing 400+ barrels per day of diesel fuel and heating oil, running through some 300 tons of turkey and egg waste and pig fat daily.
  • Re:Uhm..Yield rates. (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @08:04PM (#17382784)
    Why limit yourself? Can you grow algae and/or soy beans in the desert where you could place solar panels?

    Why not put solar panels in the desert where you can't grow algae and/or soy beans, and then grow algae and/or soy beans somewhere you can and use multiple sources of fuels?

  • by Bush Pig ( 175019 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @08:15PM (#17382860)
    The process requires dirty water, so it's just a matter of using the algae as part of your sewerage treatment.

  • Uhhh... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Watson Ladd ( 955755 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @08:15PM (#17382866)
    Newsflash:The Government imposes the carbon market on companies. Otherwise pollution is what economists call an Externality []. Free markets fail whenever externalities exist. So the free market is incapable of solving Global Warming without Government.
  • Because oil prices aren't constant, and 1998 was a low point in oil prices? See this chart [], for instance.
  • by wrook ( 134116 ) on Wednesday December 27, 2006 @11:59PM (#17384116) Homepage
    Man... I just went to the Tesla motors site and they claim an efficiency of 110 Wh/km. That means only 11 kWh/100 km. In my neck of the woods that's just about $1.10 Cdn / 100 km (heh heh... in the summer I guess ;-) ).

    But that completely *buries* my VW diesel Golf which clocks in at nearly $5 / 100 km....

    I had absolutely *no* idea how cheaply you could potentially run an electric vehicle... Now to wait until they cost less than $100,000 USD...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 28, 2006 @12:13AM (#17384194)
    Targetted location for a giant algae farm is the dying inland sea,
    the salton sea on california, due to salt and nitrates.

    Enough in fact to replace all needs for petro based fuel:

    with just 12% of the sonora desert around the salton sea. []

  • Re:*yawn* (Score:3, Informative)

    by randallman ( 605329 ) on Thursday December 28, 2006 @02:10AM (#17384828)
    >Wake me when someone solves *that* one.

    That's exactly what biodiesel solves. Why is this comment insightful? Biodiesel uses existing infrastructure and with a productive feedstock will "rival that of petroleum in terms of quantity, price, availability and reliability". The largest shortcoming at the moment is a productive feedstock, which algae may be.

    So this is exactly what you say it isn't.

  • Re:*yawn* (bad mods) (Score:3, Informative)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Thursday December 28, 2006 @03:04AM (#17385068) Journal
    it's a matter of creating a supply chain and infrastructure to rival that of petroleum in terms of quantity, price, availability and reliability, and then of maintaining that long enough for our dumb-ass auto companies to produce decent vehicles which make use of the new fuel,

    Done and Done.

    Ethanol can INSTANTLY replace 30% of gasoline, and Biodiesel can INSTANTLY replace 20% of petroleum diesel.

    Same infrastructure (dump it in the petroleum fuels, pipelines, trucks, pumps, etc.).

    Exactly the same vehicles, since 30% ethanol to 70% gasoline has been required for new cars for over a decade now, and 20% biodiesel is practically the same as pure petroleum diesel.

    Why you got modded up for your utter ignorance, I can't imagine.
  • The real Algae story (Score:4, Informative)

    by drwho ( 4190 ) on Thursday December 28, 2006 @04:18AM (#17385318) Homepage Journal
    I got tired of reading a lot of the BS posts here, and it's late, so I am just going to post what I know and hope that I am not duplicating too much of what has already been said.

    Oil from Algae has great potential. Contrary to what one poster said, there are strains of algae that produce a very large amount of oil. Up to 70% of the dry weight, but more likely around 40%. My favorite algae is Botryococcus braunii [] because it creates Alkanes, which can be used directly as fuel or transformed into the chemical equivalent of the petroleum fuels we know and love - i.e. Octane, Kerosene, etc. This happens without the inefficiency inherent in the production of biodiesel.

    It is true that the carbon so sequestered is again released into the atmosphere. This is unfortunate, but not as much of a problem as it seems at first glance. While the 'low hanging fruit' in terms of surplus CO2 is such industrial processes as fermenting of wine and coal-fired power plants, the secondary source of CO2 can be from everyday air - or air that's not as good as everyday, such as that in polluted cities. There is also the potential of creating an algae bioreactor inside an automobile's exhaust system. That's pretty far off in the future with what we've got right now, but possible.

    The current state of the industry in algal fuel oil production is one of confusion. There are snake-oil salesmen (no pun intended) making wild claims about their proprietary, secret systems which are incredible (in the bad meaning of the word). These do not stand up to scientific scrutiny but seem to make headlines and sucker in some angel capital (or at least try to). Not all startups are frauds, however. There is some good progress being made by companies like Greenfuels Technologies. But there is a spectre haunting the market: the ghost of the coal-sands projects of the 1970s which spent billions of dollars without producing tangible returns. These were canceled during the Reagan era when gasoline became cheap again. People seem to have short memories. What would happen a company which produces these expensive fuels if the bottom drops out of the petroleum market? They'd quickly go bust. This is because there is not yet enough government incentives making it possible to compete with temporarily cheap petroleum. What is needed is thoughtful, large scale action by major governments around the world to develop the best alternative energy systems, be they wind, biofuels, even nuclear. For instance, the first thing needed is a moratorium on transportation fuel taxes, guaranteed for a period of time - say ten years. This means not only the removal of federal taxes on these fuels, but the prohibition of state and local taxes on them. Next, there needs to be encouragement for distribution of alternative fuels, such as local licensing boards requiring a certain proportion of fuel pumps to be alternative. There needs to be pressure put on the operators of large fleets of vehicles to utilize the fuels and vehicles for them, and incentives to make their refueling depots available for use by the public.

    I could go into some of the technical details regarding the ideas I have on how to make various fuels in an economically viable manner. However, Slashdot isn't the place to go on at (even further) length. If you're interested in this type of stuff, there are several forums, such as Bio-Diesel Now [], which I post on and encourage others to get involved with as well. Even so, as much as I'd like my ideas to be adopted, I'd also like some money for my inventions, so I am holding some thoughts back until I meet the right people to work with.

    It's a shame that GreenFuels Technologies is right in the middle of the type of things I'd like to do in the algal fuels industry, and their offices are in the same city as me, but they seem to have no use for a computer techie as myself who would like to try his hand at a new industry (my inquiries about jo

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