At a recent even in San Diego to highlight the advantages of algae as a biofuel and the city's emergence as a biofuel hub, Dr. Steven Briggs, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California, San Diego made a strong case for the green crude to an audience comprised of cleantech executives, scientists, venture capitalists, industry insiders and service providers.
Here is a brief overview of algal biofuel and its potential to be a mass produced fuel, as highlighted by Dr. Briggs:
Why Green Crude?
Algae are single cell, photosynthetic microbes that can be grown on non-arable land, with non-potable, salt or brackish water and yield a large biomass, which can be up to 10 times that of other food crops. They also use nutrients effectively, even from waste water.
The Sustainability Angle
The non-fuel fraction of algae is high in protein and edible, yielding by-products such as spirulina, a dietary supplement. Algae can capture carbon dioxide at point source and produce high yields of energy-dense molecules.
“With proper treatment, inland brackish water resources could be an important source of water for thermo-electric power. Salt aquifers are plentiful in the U.S,” Briggs explained.
Chlamydomonas, a genus of green algae, are unicellular, free swimming, eukaryotic micro algae, which can be easily bred in a lab and are 40 times more efficient in converting sunlight into photosynthetic material than other plants.
In terms of growth efficiency, algae yields 48 metric tons per acre, per year and grows very fast. In comparison, switchgrass yields 12 tons, sugar cane yields 10 tons and corn is the laggard at the lower end of the totem pole, with 6 tons.
Briggs had the audience laughing when he pointed out that former President George Bush was a big proponent of switchgrass and often referred to it in his speeches. He also highlighted a revealing statistic, pointing out that 25 per cent of corn growing land used to make fuel has only displaced four per cent of U.S fuel consumption.
When compared to other oil crops such as rapeseed and palm oil, algae performs far better, with significantly better yields and does not damage the environment, unlike palm oil, for example.
Rise in Patent Applications is a Good Sign
With economic and environmental factors driving policy and research in renewable energy and alternative fuel, interest and funding for algal fuel has spiraled in recent years. In 1988, there were relatively no patent applications for algae related technology. In 1998, that number had risen to 37 applications and 22 patents were issued. Most recently, in 2008, the growth has been explosive, with 90 applications filed and 51 being issued.
This is proof that algae’s time has arrived and it is in high gear now.
Briggs recounted how back in the 1970s, the Department of Energy had looked into developing a production strain of algae that would tolerate saline water with a high pH content, accumulate as much as lipids as possible, have robust growth and thrive in an outdoor environment. The DOE’s efforts failed back then. But today, with competition driving improvement, Briggs said it is eminently possible to achieve those goals.
The Need For Directed Evolution
Historically, crop domestication has required thousands of years of human ingenuity and ultimately, directed evolution. So why should algae be any different, Briggs asked, acknowledging one of the challenges with algae cultivation and commercialization as a biofuel – the fact that progress towards scale in production and price has been slow.
He cited the example of corn, which started out 7,000 years ago as teosinte before it evolved into early maize and then became the corn we see today, about a thousand years ago.
“With biotechnology, we won’t need thousands of years, we can domesticate algae in 5-10 years,” he said.
The various players in the algae biofuel industry use different methods of cultivating algae. The line is drawn between open pond cultivation and closed-system bioreactors and fermentation tanks.
It costs less to grow algae in an outdoor pond, but the argument for a controlled environment is also very compelling. ExxonMobil, which has tied up with Synthetic Genomics, indicated it would explore the latter option. Sapphire Energy uses an open pond. Briggs contended that both approaches would be explored before researchers arrived at the best solution.
Algal Fuel versus ASTM Gasoline
Briggs disclosed his many affiliations, which include being a scientific collaborator at Sapphire, whose technology he is familiar with and hence could explain at length. The company’s SC2 algal fuel is better than the 87 and 91 octane gasoline, in terms of paraffin content, he said.
This was proved in a recent demonstration. In January this year, Continental Airlines flew a Boeing 737-800 plane from a commercial airport on a 90 minute flight, with one engine running on a 50-50 mix of biofuel from Sapphire and traditional jet fuel. The airline announced the results of test flight in June, with the biofuel performing as well as and even slightly better than the jet fuel, in terms of fuel efficiency.
Advantages Over Other Fuel Options
Algae comes out on top in terms of infrastructure compliance, Briggs said, since it can go into the pipeline, where as ethanol cannot, because it is corrosive. So, ethanol has to be transported over land, adding to the expense and to greenhouse gas emissions.
Algal fuel is also fleet compliant, has growth potential, can be sourced domestically, is renewable and GHG compliant, when compared to ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, alcohol based fuels, electric and hybrid technologies and petrol, Briggs pointed out, summing up its advantages.
Given the interest and demand for hybrids, which use lithium-ion batteries, he said the U.S cannot meet current battery demand domestically and has to import lithium from Bolivia. He questioned the push towards increasing hybrids and developing all electric vehicles, given the fact that we don’t have enough lithium resources already. (As a result of the current level of interest from the Obama administration and the auto industry in hybrids and therefore lithium batteries, Bolivia hopes to become Saudi Arabia’s equivalent in lithium supply).
Despite everything algae has going for it, it is not a completely perfect scenario. The challenges are many; first among them being the need to scale up production while driving down costs. Briggs acknowledged this, saying that we are at least 5 to 10 years away from achieving the goals of much lower capital costs in growing, harvesting, extracting, and refining algae. Aside from monetizing the green crude, another way to make algal fuel feasible would be to commercialize its by-products and recycle them.
This is the second part of a two-part series on the emergence of San Diego as a hub for biofuel innovation and the case for algae advocated by the city's biofuel experts. Read the post on San Diego's claim to biofuel fame here.
Image courtesy of israel21c_internal at Flickr
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