Skip to comments.There's Oil in That Slime (Algae)
Posted on 11/29/2007 3:24:45 PM PST by decimon
ST. PAUL, Minn. - The 16 big flasks of bubbling bright green liquids in Roger Ruan's lab at the University of Minnesota are part of a new boom in renewable energy research.
Driven by renewed investment as oil prices push $100 a barrel, Ruan and scores of scientists around the world are racing to turn algae into a commercially viable energy source.
Some varieties of algae are as much as 50 percent oil, and that oil can be converted into biodiesel or jet fuel. The biggest challenge is slashing the cost of production, which by one Defense Department estimate is running more than $20 a gallon.
"If you can get algae oils down below $2 a gallon, then you'll be where you need to be. And there's a lot of people who think you can," said Jennifer Holmgren, director of the renewable fuels unit of UOP LLC, an energy subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc.
Researchers are trying to figure out how to grow enough of the right strains of algae and how to extract the oil most efficiently. Over the past two years they've enjoyed an upsurge in funding from governments, the Pentagon, big oil companies, utilities and venture capital firms.
The federal government halted its main algae research program nearly a decade ago, but technology has advanced and oil prices have climbed since then, and an Energy Department lab announced in late October that it was partnering with Chevron Corp., the second-largest U.S. oil company, in the hunt for better strains of algae.
"It's not backyard inventors at this point at all," said George Douglas, a spokesman for the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "It's folks with experience to move it forward."
A New Zealand company demonstrated a Range Rover powered by an algae biodiesel blend last year, but experts say it will be many years before algae is commercially viable. Ruan expects some demonstration plants to be built within a few years.
Converting algae oil into biodiesel uses the same process that turns vegetable oils into biodiesel. But the cost of producing algae oil is hard to pin down because nobody's running the process start to finish other than in a laboratory, Douglas said. One Pentagon estimate puts it at more than $20 per gallon, but other experts say it's not clear cut.
If it can be brought down, algae's advantages include growing much faster and in less space than conventional energy crops. An acre of corn can produce about 20 gallons of oil per year, Ruan said, compared with a possible 15,000 gallons of oil per acre of algae.
An algae farm could be located almost anywhere. It wouldn't require converting cropland from food production to energy production. It could use sea water. And algae can gobble up pollutants from sewage and power plants.
The Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is funding research into producing jet fuel from plants, including algae. DARPA is already working with Honeywell's UOP, General Electric Inc. and the University of North Dakota. In November, it requested additional research proposals.
As the single largest energy consumer in the world, the Defense Department needs new, affordable sources of jet fuel, said Douglas Kirkpatrick, DARPA's biofuels program manager.
"Our definition of affordable is less than $5 per gallon, and what we're really looking for is less than $3 per gallon, and we believe that can be done," he said.
Des Plaines, Ill.-based UOP - which has developed a "green diesel" process that converts vegetable oils into fuels that are more like conventional petroleum products than standard biodiesel - already has successfully converted soybean oil into jet fuel, Holmgren said. And the company has partnered with Arizona State University to obtain algae oil to test for the DARPA project, she said.
At the University of Minnesota, Ruan and his colleagues are developing ways to grow mass quantities of algae, identifying promising strains and figuring out what they can make from the residue that remains after the oil is removed.
Because sunlight doesn't penetrate more than a few inches into water that's thick with algae, it doesn't grow well in deep tanks or open ponds. So researchers are designing systems called "photobioreactors" to provide the right mix of light and nutrients while keeping out wild algae strains.
Ruan's researchers grow their algae in sewage plant discharge because it contains phosphates and nitrates - chemicals that pollute rivers but can be fertilizer for algae farms. So Ruan envisions building algae farms next to treatment plants, where they could consume yet another pollutant, the carbon dioxide produced when sewage sludge is burned.
Jim Sears of A2BE Carbon Capture LLC, of Boulder, Colo., a startup company that's developing fuel-from-algae technologies that tap carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, compared the challenges to achieving space flight.
"It's complex, it's difficult and it's going to take a lot of players," Sears said.
On the Net:
University of Minnesota Center for Biorefining: http://biorefining.cfans.umn.edu/home.php
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: http://www.nrel.gov
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: http://www.darpa.mil
Pure Energy Systems wiki: http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Biodiesel_from_Algae_Oil
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There is gold in beach sand too, have at it.
Maybe our fossil fuels came not only from the rotting forests and dinosaurs, but also from prehistoric algae?
Which equals lot's of money.
If it were viable and cheaper than oil, we would be using it now.
The Sierra Club types will also claim that it destroys the planet as they claim everything else that makes our country run does and rack up the law suites.
Now they won’t be messing with our food supply. Hurrah!
No, but if the reaction to this is like the reaction to every other energy suggestion presented on this forum, just sit back and watch folks rip this idea to shreds.
No! They’re killing algae!! Call PETP!
We got that twit in South America doing everything he can to make oil go to $200 a barrel, or more. Ditto Iran.
If they both fail, general demand increases from China and India may push the price to $200 per barrel anyway.
Heaven only knows how many dollars have been wasted on tax write-offs for solar installs and other solar R&D projects.
If we can't find half a trillion dollars to get out of this mess, we're too stupid to drive. We should HAVE to go back to riding horses or walking everywhere.
And I say this as a guy who's job is helping the oil companies find and refine oil.
Slaughtering algae for oil? Outrageous! Algae are people, too, you know!
They’d have a hard time. Algae uses CO2 and can be grown on sewage. If they can genetically modify to algae to produce oil when it’s thriving, we literally could supply the nation’s need for diesel on relatively small acreage.
I see algae primarily being grown inside in bioreactors. Ponds aren’t year round in too many places and are too easily contaminated.
The industry also needs to take a hard look at gas extraction of the oil vs. pressing it out as they do now.
Petroleum IS from prehistoric algae and diatoms, and that's been the accepted scientific theory for decades.
Coal is from prehistoric forests.
No fossil fuels have ANYTHING whatsoever to do with dinosaurs and there's never, ever been any scientific theory stating such.
That depends on the beach. For many in Nome, Alaska in 1899, it was well worth the time.
Certain strains of algae contain high amounts of vegetable oils. It is estimated that the algae in a 1 acre pond will have up to 15000 gallons of oil in it. The problem is that other bacteria gets into the water and greatly reduces the yield. The challenge is to find a way to keep the algae and get rid of the bacteria without creating a super strain of algae that would choke rivers and streams and lakes to death.
Viable, proved, and clean.
We all know it’s those rich BIG ALGAE companies holding algae fuel off the market until the price returns them the exorbitant prices they want.
At the same time we’ve GOT TO BREAK OUR DEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN ALGAE!!!
Meanwhile we MUST establish an equitable tax on algae, encouraging every state to add their taxes onto the federal algae tax as well.
Lots of investors, preferably from the public trough.
The truth is that nobody knows exactly where our “fossil fuels” came from, especially the stuff that is pumped from thousands of feet underground. There are many who think that crude oil is a natural process of the earth.
First things first!
How are we going to use this good fortune to benefit politicians and their schemes of wealth transference?
Relax. Our law schools can produce plenty more.
Most algae are at home in the big ponds, aka the open oceans. Algae float and do not mind 50 foot waves crashing down on them. Most of the O2 in the atmosphere came from saltwater algae cracking CO2 from volcanoes. I'm very surprised that 70% of Earth's sun absorbing surface goes so unnoticed. The oceans are filled with animals that harvest algae and convert it into biodiesel for free.
Every geologist in the world accepts and knows coal is from ancient forests (in Bituminous coal you can find traces of the leaves.)
99.99999999% of the Geologists in the world accept and believe, beyond dispute, that petroleum is from ancient microscopic algae and diatoms that died and fell to the bottoms of shallow lakes and oceans, and was buried. If you examine the composition of various chemicals in petroleum they match what you'd expect if it came from algae and diatoms. Petroleum geologists constantly find oil based on the above assumptions and where there used to be ancient shallow lakes and oceans.
how about finding an algae that eats coal and makes oil???
And to get to $2 a gallon, all we need is a 'breakthrough'!
As I explained to my 'greenie-weenie' children, when you depend on 'Science-Fiction' over 'Science' to bolster your argument, you're putting your tax money in someone elses pocket.
It's still hard for them to grasp the reality, that there are not GIANT piles of corn, woodchips, algae, hydrogen, or anything else, just laying around somewhere waiting to be discovered and turned into fuel.
They didn't much like the 'miracles' needed for hydrogen, either .................................... FRegards
Seems like a good idea to me.
We're talking Sierra Club types here.
If this is the case with CO2 then the wanton lawful issue would be "global cooling", forced sewage destroying wildlife and insects, and the drastic change for the better disrupting nature in total.
Point being, they hate humankind and everything it stands for whether it be good or bad.
Don't underestimate these fanatics and their directives.
Clean? Have you heard about the fuss in SE Nevada?
In all cases, the only issue is price- will the end product of the conversion process have a sufficiently high enough market value to justify both the risk and the capital investment? The higher crude oil gets, the more projects will come to the stage where someone will accept the risk and fund it.
This is why the advocates of the “Peak Oil” theory run off the rails. They carelessly assume that hydrocarbon fuels will always come from crude oil, when in fact the very price increases in oil they wring their hands over guarantees that substitution will take place. Because, for example, diesel can be made from coal, algae, or sewage sludge, the only issue is the market price of diesel fuel, for the price indicates what the seller concludes about the nature of the supply. And clearly today, at this very moment, the price of gasoline and diesel are above the break-even costs of proven replacement and conversion technologies.
Same here. Build a vat the size of Wyoming and put a spiggot on it. Heh heh heh...
Yeah, I’ll have to concede that there. Reason is pointless in the face of insanity.
I've heard just oil, coal, wind, hydro, corn, hydrogen, bicycle, solar, lunar, tidal, foreign, domestic, and nuclear.
To date, nuclear is the cleanest and safest available.
What's this "fuss" energy you refer to? ; )
Algae are optimized to use chlorophyll to capture energy so would not likely be candidates for eating coal. But bacteria or nanomachines might be engineered to mine coal down to the last molecule.
That is where most of it came from if IIRC.
Makes sense. Algae is the most abundant plant on the planet.
If one wishes hard enough, can't they make it happen and feel good about it?
Alas, it doesn't matter because to many, it would still be a problem and a way to rape the rich and redistribute.
Oil isn't exactly approaching extinction either. (believed only by those who worship at the altar of AlGore and his "Inconvenient Truth")
The idea of it sure is a possible path to wealth and fame that P.T. Barnum would envy however.
Few people recognize this but the Department of Defense is responsible for America's great wealth. It's just that there is sometimes a 20 year lag between expensive military invention to mass consumer product that expands the economy.
The military will drive the discovery of a replacement for petroleum.
Actually, they don't seem to have much of a problem with the bad.
Al Gore and the Green Al "G"ees
They mindfully revel in that half empty glass don't they?
We the people defending our way of life in a concerning way and creating and supporting the DOD via hard earned labor perhaps.
That would be about a third of a gallon per square foot. That would be the equivalent of a layer of oil about 1/2" thick.
But I want to see this algea work. Because if we can find a way to make vats of algea make diesel, we can also fine a way to make vats of algea make medicines. And special plastics. And carbon nano-fibers. And electronic chips. And things no one has thought of yet, but we will.
And it will happen from raw material we flush down toilets and toss in the kitchen trash.
That is the THEORETICAL amount. I believe that the more realistic number is about 6,000 gallons. But it is still about 10 times as much as soybeans.
Proved and efficient.
Actually, the transistor was initially produced pretty cheaply for the early AM Transistor radios in the '50s. Of course, Military involvement during the 'Space-Race' led to 'integrated-circuits' or 'chips' as we call them today, and made possible these computer-thingys that I'm using right now.
$20/gallon is indeed a great starting point, but only if Americans are forced to pay that much because the enviro-weenies keep stopping the USA from building more refineries, drilling for our own oil, building nuclear power plants, etc., etc., ad infinitum.
The name-of-the-game is 'Energy', and right now, we're using-up the Middle-Eastern oil, and it's costing more because of increased world demand. In spite of all the brouha raised over 'renewable' fuels, fossil fuels will remain the way of the foreseeable future.
Trying to cram trees and shrubs into gas tanks is stupid as long as there's plenty of oil to be drilled and coal to be mined. Cramming corn into our gas tanks is selfish beyond belief, and borders on being criminal if there are hungry people anywhere in the world. Corn is food! ................................... FRegards
Only if you're the algore. And then we'll give you another award ... maybe the 'Hasty Pudding' or something - whatever that is ................................ FRegards
Partly correct. Price is one aspect, but scale is probably more important.
There are a lot of things that can be done and will be done that can add to the world's energy supplies. Most of these work best on a relatively small scale. Collective the result is probably more along the lines of a volume of silver BBs not silver bullets if the desired result is liquid fuels.
Your example of sewage sludge is a classic. Yes we can make some usable hydrocarbon based fuel from sludge ... but as full of crap as people are, we aren't going to run California on it. And methane [a gas] is the most economic end product not oil.
1,000 barrels a second. 86 million barrels a day. A barrel per day of Canadian tar sand based oil starts with $60,000 to $100,000 dollars of fixed investment per daily barrel of production. Then a lot of energy is added in terms of diesel to mine and transport the stuff and whole lot of natural gas is consumed to heat the bitumen and provide a bunch of hydrogen atoms to make the resulting mess into something resembling crude oil. This process is so capital, water and energy intensive that it in spite of large deposits and the undeniable ability to extract a positive energy return on the energy invested it simply isn't going to translate into the daily production needed to replace convention oil.
One last thing. Peak oil advocates do not assume that oil is all there is in the way of potential energy sources. [There are doomers who think that we are doomed no matter what, but that is pessimism not peak oil theory.] What peak oil advocates agree on is that at some point it will be impossible or at least wildly unfeasible to extract oil in volumes beyond that peak level and that thereafter there will be an irreversible decline in oil production. Whether the peak has already happened [some believe that it occurred in 2005 as crude oil and lease condensate have been declining during the intervening period] or whether CERA is correct and the peak won't occur for more than 20 years, is open to debate.
Most of the worlds oil fields and oil provinces are probably past peak now. Many will continue to produce oil long after we are all dead ... just at lower and lower levels.
For what it's worth, algae appears to have potential. I hope it works.