Skip to comments.Not ready for slime time: Algae present challenges as fuel source
Posted on 04/07/2013 11:37:53 AM PDT by thackney
As debate continues over raising the ethanol content in motor fuel to reduce emissions, another form of green energy is coloring the discussion.
And its not just pond scum anymore.
On Jan. 1, Congress made algae-based fuel production eligible for a $1.01-per-gallon cellulosic biofuel production federal tax credit.
Cellulosic biofuels typically are made from woody, non-food material such as grasses or wood chips, in contrast to ethanol, which competes with the food market for raw material usually corn in the United States and sugar cane in some other countries.
But algae has another big advantage that makes it attractive to energy companies: It converts the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into oxygen, which could be significant if the Obama administrations measures against climate change make carbon emissions more expensive.
The oil companies are making a long-term bet on algae, said Will Thurmond, CEO of Emerging Markets Online, a consulting service on bioenergy.
It is carbon negative, he said. They see it as a hedge against the risk if there is a carbon tax.
Legislation in 2007 mandated that refineries include an increasing amount of cellulosic biofuels in their products, reaching 16 billion gallons by 2022.
So far, cellulosic production has been insufficient to meet the government targets. The Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the mandate, scaled back the 2012 target from 500 million gallons to less than 13 million gallons.
The American Petroleum Institute successfully challenged the 2012 target, arguing that even the lower level exceeded total domestic production.
But the industry continues the quest for cellulosic fuel.
Exxon Mobil Corp. invested $600 million in 2009 on algae-related research, partnering with California-based Synthetic Genomics.
Four years later, company officials say that while they know how to turn algae into oil, doing so economically at commercial scale remains elusive.
It is harder than we had hoped, said Exxon Mobil Senior Vice President Michael Dolan, speaking at the IHS-CeraWeek conference earlier this year in Houston.
The big challenge is extracting enough oil from an algae cell to make its production economic.
The process is hardly new: Algae and other organisms turn into oil naturally over millions of years in geologic formations.
And the water-borne single-cell creatures grow fast, making them theoretically capable of producing 30 times more energy per acre than land crops, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
But growing a microorganism as a commercial commodity presents daunting barriers.
You have got to manage species competitors, predators, diseases and changes in the physical environment, said Jerry Brand, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the Culture Collection of Algae.
And making it in sufficient quantities is limited by the large volumes of water algae require.
You look at an aquarium or a pond and they look dense, but they are relatively dilute, Brand said, and its difficult to grow algae in higher concentration.
Some biotech companies have used sugar to help encourage faster growth, but that doesnt provide an alternative to traditional ethanol raw materials.
Using a fuel to make a fuel doesnt make a lot of sense, said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of California-based Origin Oil, which has developed electromagnetic pulse technology that encourages algae to clump together.
You can use carbon sources like wastewater and nitrates, and maybe some waste carbon, but you cannot use foods or fuels that defeats the whole purpose.
San Antonio-based refiner Tesoro recently announced that it plans to purchase algae-derived crude oil from Sapphire Energy, a California company that said Tesoro is its first customer. Sapphire has estimated that it will reach production of 100 barrels a day by the end of 2014.
Chevron Technology Ventures has been researching algae as one of the advanced biofuels Chevron Corp. could use to meet the mandates, along with forest-based plants, agricultural byproducts and crops grown specifically for the purpose, such as switchgrass.
It is our goal to meet these mandates as cost effectively as we can, said Desmond King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures. He said Chevron looks at the cost, sustainability and whether a biofuel source can be produced at a scale sufficient to meet future demand.
In simple terms, algae is about nine dollars a gallon three times the price of wholesale gasoline, and twice the cost of other advanced biofuels, King said.
King said the big constraint is the resources needed to produce even modest amounts of cellulosic fuel.
Algae need huge areas, he said. To produce a million barrels of fuel, we need a pond the size of Lake Erie. If we want to produce a million barrels a day from forest material, we would need a forest the size of New Mexico. The big challenge for these fuels is actually the biomass.
Looking for the key, researchers have experimented with hundreds of the 100,000 or so algae strains, looking for one with the highest oil yield.
We have had a worldwide search for the perfect algae, Exxon Mobils Dolan said. The most productive strain found came from Texas, but it is not productive or resilient enough.
Companies harvesting algae already are using it for higher-value products, including cosmetics, plastics and bio-concrete building materials.
Those in the business say tax breaks are key for attracting investment from venture capitalists, angel investors and oil and gas companies.
And thats where the new tax credit eligibility comes in.
There has been a huge push for algae to get a tax credit, so that these companies can get their fuels to the market more quickly and get more confidence from investors, said Thurmond of Emerging Markets Online. It gives a lot of the existing companies more oxygen and cash flow and more ability to work their way down that cost curve.
But any tax breaks are tied to production, not research, so it still could be years before any producers actually claim significant algae-related tax breaks, said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
Algae is still about 40 years away as a viable biofuel, he said. Its pseudo-mature.
But why? Our emissions are way below the level where it causes problems. The United States is a hundred times cleaner than China or Russia or anywhere else. Lets RAISE Emissions if it will help the economy. Dial it somewhere around healthy and clean from super anal microscopic bean counter clean.
After all, with the newest, latest greatest EPA tightening of the standards, breathing air in China is far dirtier than our factory smoke stacks put out.
At what level are we just being, insane?
Ethanol - What you put into your car if you want to destroy the engine.
For some reason, ‘step on the algae’ just doesn’t sound right.
What’s this all about- Algae?
Is it just for this time when we live?
What comes about when the oil is all out- Algae?
Are we meant to take more than we give
or to Earth are we meant to be kind?
Oh. It’s algae.
I thought the article was suggesting that Algore wasn’t ready for slime time.
They should take a look at my fishpond in spring.
No it doesn't. As does any green plant, it utilizes CO2 and gives off O2. Most of that CO2 exchange is an insignificant number in relation to the CO2 content of the atmosphere.
which could be significant if the Obama administrations measures against climate change make carbon emissions more expensive.
What do they think the algae does with that Carbon....destroys it?
What do they think happens when they burn that fuel?
What comes naturally is Evil. Didn't nature get the memo? “No carbon based fuels!” So Nature, stop it immediately, or you will have to buy carbon credits as per the EPA.
the way to go is not by algae but rather bacteria.
the reason is that with algae you have to harvest and process algae.
But you can milk bacteria. bacteria will actually secrete ethanol or biodiesel in a form that can needs no further refining.
At least one company that I know of is doing this and maybe others are doing it that I don’t know of. Joule says they can produce biodiesel ready for the gas tank at 1.25 @ gallon. They are currently scaling up to a 1000 acres in New Mexico.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the mandate, scaled back the 2012 target from 500 million gallons to less than 13 million gallons.
[sarcasm, average] I'm sure the EPA will scale back the rest of its patently insane demands by the same ration. [/sarcasm]
According to the article something 40 years away from being viable is “pseudo-mature”.
Explains a lot of liberals wising up around 70.
This would fix the three major stumbling blocks to electric cars: recharge time, range, and cost. Cars would recharge while driving along the road, giving them infinite range and zero recharge time. They would no longer need large batteries to give them range, just smaller ones to drive around while off the electrified roads. This would bring down the cost of an electric car.
The electricity for the roads can be generated using new design nukes, which have low costs of generated power. This should give the cars per mile costs lower than gasoline fuel.
CO2 is NOT a “greenhouse” gas. It has zero impact on climate change. It increases in te atmosphere 400-800 years AFTER the warming occurs. sheesh
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As an electrical engineer, specialized in power systems, I would like to hear more about how you think this works.
A Stanford University research team has designed a high-efficiency charging system that uses magnetic fields to wirelessly transmit large electric currents between metal coils placed several feet apart.
What advantage does this provide?