Skip to comments.Engineering algae to make fuel instead of sugar
Posted on 12/26/2008 11:31:10 PM PST by neverdem
In pursuing cleaner energy there is such a thing as being too green. Unicellular microalgae, for instance, can be considered too green. In a paper in a special energy issue of Optics Express, the Optical Society's (OSA) open-access journal, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley describe a method for using microalgae for making biofuel. The researchers explain a way to genetically modify the tiny organisms, so as to minimize the number of chlorophyll molecules needed to harvest light without compromising the photosynthesis process in the cells. With this modification, instead of making more sugar molecules, the microalgae could be producing hydrogen or hydrocarbons.
Berkeley researchers have identified the genetic instructions in the algae genome responsible for deploying approximately 600 chlorophyll molecules in the cell's light-gathering antennae. They believe that the algae can get along with as few as 130 molecules. Basically the scientists want to divert the normal function of photosynthesis from generating biomass to making products such as lipids, hydrocarbons, and hydrogen.
Tasios Melis, one of the paper's co-authors, argues that the algae's chlorophyll antennae help the organisms compete for sunlight absorption and survive in the wild, where sunlight is often limited, but is detrimental to the engineering-driven effort of using algae to convert sunlight into biofuel.
Melis uses the phrase "cellular optics" to describe this general effort to maximize the efficiency of the solar-to-product conversion process. Besides getting the algae to convert more sunlight to fuel, another issue that needs to be addressed is how to configure bio-culture tanks in such a way that sunlight can penetrate the outer layer of algae so that lower-down layers can participate in the photo-conversion too.
Microalgae are ideal because of their high rate of photosynthesis; they are perhaps ten times more efficient in this than the land plantssuch as sugarcane, corn, and switchgrassoften discussed as possible biofuel stocks.
How soon can algae play a role? According to Melis, "Progress is substantial to date, but not enough to make the process commercially competitive with fossil fuels. Further improvement in the performance of photosynthesis under mass culture conditions, and in the yield of "biofuels" by the microalgae are needed before a cost parity with traditional fuels can be achieved."
Source : Optical Society of America
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Eventually the bio-fuel science/technology will arrive and compete with the rest of the energy sources: in about 15-20 years.
And my guess is that all we will need to complete the transition to a viable replacement for fossil fuel will be a small processing vat about the size of the gulf of Mexico.
The Green Slime that “appears” in our garden water features is capable of creating that “rainbow” oil-slick. It sure resembles “Oil, on water”.
We have 15-20 years to think smaller: think smaller box.
Eventually the bio-fuel science/technology will arrive and compete with the rest of the energy sources: in about 15-20 years.
I think it will be under 5 years.
Yes, perhaps on a small scale.
My time frame is more along the lines of competition for large scale energy re: oil, gas, coal, water, solar, wind....
we’ve got plenty of empty real estate in some parts of the Union.
The Klamath lakes in southeastern Oregon/Northeastern CA are naturally eutrophic. I was on a pier watching boast go by on the lake and the wake was like Pesto sauce.
Saying, “Further improvement in the performance of photosynthesis under mass culture conditions, and in the yield of “biofuels” by the microalgae are needed before a cost parity with traditional fuels can be achieved.”,
does severely understate the problems to be overcome.
Seems like it would be easier to find away to turn coal into gas at a lower cost Hitler did it.
What's wrong with that?? The US has LOTS of "square miles" with high solar irradicance which is useful for little else. You'd have to bring in and recycle water, but that's do-able.
Interesting. Is there any danger this new algae could spread in the wild and cause unforseen harm? Not to be an alarmist but be prepared to fight to prove it is safe. Assuming this algae poses no harm to the environment, you can be sure the left will be against it. The left is against bio-engineering unless it involves cells from aborted babies. They will be against algae if it is a safe, economical source for fuel. I predict there will be fringe groups who will take up the banner of “algae rights” and these lunatics will seek the ban the “exploitation” of these one-celled plants.
I wonder if this algae could be used to treat waste water? Could you imagine cleaner water and a source for fuel? That would be great, if possible, but the leftist anti-science demagogues would try to ban it.
No War for Big Algae!
Many places having readily available water also have cold winters, which while it can be overcome, increases costs over s sunny desert with few days below 40 degrees.
Having lived in and traveled over much of the Southwest I know thaere’s plenty of land that's “bombing range” quality but without water rights that's all it will ever be.
Perhaps recycling will reduce water needs of an algae farm but as the article says the costs aren't competitive with petroleum and just how uncompetitive few are willing to say.
How does bio-diesel at $10 to $15/gal. sound? If any are able to make it for less than that who are they?
But yes, it might be do able but at what cost?
be sure to bet the Farm on that one.
Why not use the equatorial oceans? It’s a very calm environment with lots of sunlight.
Uh, you "did" see where I pointed out that water would have to be transported to the site?? If we can pump oil from Louisiana to Chicago, I suspect we can pump water a commensurate distance.
"Many places having readily available water also have cold winters, which while it can be overcome, increases costs over s sunny desert with few days below 40 degrees."
It's called "insulation" and heat storage. Rooftop hot water systems produce warmer water even in winter. Same principle applies.
"Having lived in and traveled over much of the Southwest I know thaeres plenty of land that's bombing range quality but without water rights that's all it will ever be."
See my first point about transporting water.
"Perhaps recycling will reduce water needs of an algae farm but as the article says the costs aren't competitive with petroleum and just how uncompetitive few are willing to say."
Geez---it's a RESEARCH PROJECT. Give the innovators a bit of time to work on it.
"How does bio-diesel at $10 to $15/gal. sound? If any are able to make it for less than that who are they?"
See point above about it being a research project. No one knows what the price will be at this point.
Here is readily available info. on research being done.
“Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae
Michael Briggs, University of New Hampshire, Physics Department
(revised August 2004)
“The Office of Fuels Development, a division of the Department of Energy, funded a program from 1978 through 1996 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory known as the “Aquatic Species Program”. The focus of this program was to investigate high-oil algaes that could be grown specifically for the purpose of wide scale biodiesel production1. The research began as a project looking into using quick-growing algae to sequester carbon in CO2 emissions from coal power plants. Noticing that some algae have very high oil content, the project shifted its focus to growing algae for another purpose - producing biodiesel. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content (some well over 50% oil), and extremely fast growth rates. From the results of the Aquatic Species Program2, algae farms would let us supply enough biodiesel to completely replace petroleum as a transportation fuel in the US (as well as its other main use - home heating oil) - but we first have to solve a few of the problems they encountered along the way.
NREL’s research focused on the development of algae farms in desert regions, using shallow saltwater pools for growing the algae. Using saltwater eliminates the need for desalination, but could lead to problems as far as salt build-up in bonds. Building the ponds in deserts also leads to problems of high evaporation rates. There are solutions to these problems, but for the purpose of this paper, we will focus instead on the potential such ponds can promise, ignoring for the moment the methods of addressing the solvable challenges remaining when the Aquatic Species Program at NREL ended.
NREL’s research showed that one quad (7.5 billion gallons) of biodiesel could be produced from 200,000 hectares of desert land (200,000 hectares is equivalent to 780 square miles, roughly 500,000 acres), if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH). In the previous section, we found that to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.
The algae farms would not all need to be built in the same location, of course (and should not for a variety of reasons). The case mentioned above of building it all in the Sonora desert is purely a hypothetical example to illustrate the amount of land required. It would be preferable to spread the algae production around the country, to lessen the cost and energy used in transporting the feedstocks. Algae farms could also be constructed to use waste streams (either human waste or animal waste from animal farms) as a food source, which would provide a beautiful way of spreading algae production around the country. Nutrients can also be extracted from the algae for the production of a fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorous. By using waste streams (agricultural, farm animal waste, and human sewage) as the nutrient source, these farms essentially also provide a means of recycling nutrients from fertilizer to food to waste and back to fertilizer. Extracting the nutrients from algae provides a far safer and cleaner method of doing this than spreading manure or wastewater treatment plant “bio-solids” on farmland.
These projected yields of course depend on a variety of factors, sunlight levels in particular. The yield in North Dakota, for example, wouldn't be as good as the yield in California. Spreading the algae production around the country would result in more land being required than the projected 9.5 million acres, but the benefits from distributed production would outweigh the larger land requirement. Further, these yield estimates are based on what is theoretically achievable - roughly 15,000 gallons per acre-year. It's important to point out that the DOE’s ASP that projected that such yields are possible, was never able to come close to achieving such yields. Their focus on open ponds was a primary factor in this, and the research groups that have picked up where the DOE left off are making substantial gains in the yields compared to the old DOE work - but we still have a ways to go. But, consider that even if we are only able to sustain an average yield of 5,000 gallons per acre-year in algae systems spread across the US, the amount of land required would still only be 28.5 million acres - a mere fraction still of the total farmland area in the US.
In “The Controlled Eutrophication process: Using Microalgae for CO2 Utilization and Agircultural Fertilizer Recycling”3, the authors estimated a cost per hectare of $40,000 for algal ponds. In their model, the algal ponds would be built around the Salton Sea (in the Sonora desert) feeding off of the agircultural waste streams that normally pollute the Salton Sea with over 10,000 tons of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers each year. The estimate is based on fairly large ponds, 8 hectares in size each. To be conservative (since their estimate is fairly optimistic), we'll arbitrarily increase the cost per hectare by 100% as a margin of safety. That brings the cost per hectare to $80,000. Ponds equivalent to their design could be built around the country, using wastewater streams (human, animal, and agricultural) as feed sources. We found that at NREL’s yield rates, 15,000 square miles (3.85 million hectares) of algae ponds would be needed to replace all petroleum transportation fuels with biodiesel. At the cost of $80,000 per hectare, that would work out to roughly $308 billion to build the farms.
The operating costs (including power consumption, labor, chemicals, and fixed capital costs (taxes, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and return on investment) worked out to $12,000 per hectare. That would equate to $46.2 billion per year for all the algae farms, to yield all the oil feedstock necessary for the entire country. Compare that to the $100-150 billion the US spends each year just on purchasing crude oil from foreign countries, with all of that money leaving the US economy.
These costs are based on the design used by NREL - the simple open-top raceway pond. Various approaches being examined by the research groups focusing on algae biodiesel range from being the same general system, to far more complicated systems. As a result, this cost analysis is very much just a general approximation.
While the work on algae for fuel production done in the 1980s and 1990s focused almost entirely on the simple open pond approach, most groups now working in this field (including our collaboration) have shifted to focusing on the use of proprietary photobioreactors. The primary reason being that most of the problems encountered by prior work (takeover by low oil strains, vulnerability to temperature fluctuations, high evaporation losses, etc.) are primarily a result of using open ponds. Going with enclosed photobioreactors can immediately solve the bulk of the problems encountered by prior research. The obvious drawback though is cost - any photobioreactor design is going to be have a higher capital cost than a simple, open pond. At this point, a key factor in making algal biodiesel a commercial reality is the development of photobioreactors that can offer high yields (optimization of light path, etc.), but be built inexpensively enough to offer a reasonable payback rate (otherwise no company would be interested in building them). Improving processing technologies, and designing an integrated system to tie the algae production into other processes (i.e. wastestream treatment, power plant emissions reduction, etc.), can further improve the economics and payback rate. UNH and our collaborators are currently focusing on these issues, with the goal of making algal biodiesel a commercial reality.”
“See point above about it being a research project. No one knows what the price will be at this point.”
True enough but there are projections based upon research.
And I tell you again that those numbers mean squat. Research prototypes are ALWAYS hugely expensive. The "research version" of a new car prototype (or engine prototype, or virtually anything else) is ALWAYS orders of magnitude higher than the mass produced final version.
We simply have no way of knowing what the conversion efficiency can be pushed to by the use of genetic engineering on the algae, nor what the final plant configuration might be.
Microbiological warfare? Lets see if we can take out the fuel supply with an algae strain that will foul up the the bio fuel algae. Just introduce it into the water supply for the bio fuel algae plants. Just thinking out of the box here. It seems it would be easy for a committed organization to take out a bio fuel plant.
I’m not against bio fuels, but if anything we need to diversify our energy sources so that the loss or reduction in one area will allow increased production with our other energy sources to make up for the shortfall.
Want a secure energy future?
Build 100 new nuclear plants and several breeder reactors. Then encourage transition of our home heating and personal transportation systems to electric. Best bang for the buck for our energy future.
Better yet are the neighborhood and city sized micro nuclear plants. Widely distributed power sources are much harder to disrupt.
The danger that they face is that less efficient algae can over run the open ponds, and since the ponds are open, anyone could introduce something harmful. Of course petroleum refineries are just as vulnerable to attack.
Breeder reactors would be a remedy for burying nuke waste.
We don't seem to lack solutions just the will to implement them.
Algae floats, likes saltwater, and can thrive in the open oceans like no other plant. We should leapfrog past the high capital cost pond ideas and go straight to the open oceans. Pest management and contamination are problems but they can be solved. The land and water are unlimited and free so we don't need anything close to maximum efficiency. We can completely replace the petroleum industry using about 3 percent of the ocean surface.
That sounds great to the military. They are usually the source of leaps in technology because initially only they can afford it. When integrated circuits were first invented they cost $1,000 each. The military ordered thousands of them for use in missiles which quickly dropped the price down. Today ICs cost pennies.
” The “research version” of a new car prototype (or engine prototype, or virtually anything else) is ALWAYS orders of magnitude higher than the mass produced final version.”
Which explains why the projected numbers ARE important as they show the magnitude of improvement necessary to compete with other fuels.
For example the DoD estimated that the cost of $20/ga. for bio-diesel would have to drop to $2/gal. to be viable. A 90% reduction. Doable? Perhaps, perhaps not.
PetroSun, one of the algae to oil startups, say they’re going commercial with production rates of 4000/gal./acre/yr. but the hoped for figure is around 15000 gal.,etc. of feedstock. Doable? Perhaps.
So knowing the distance that must be traveled should temper the enthusiasm a bit.
“We simply have no way of knowing what the conversion efficiency can be pushed to by the use of genetic engineering on the algae, nor what the final plant configuration might be.”
Which is also a way of saying that as far as the eye can see
there’s no pond scum gas stations.
” We can completely replace the petroleum industry using about 3 percent of the ocean surface.”
And when a hurricane Katrina brings it all inland it’ll be easier to harvest. Ahem...yes.