Monday, June 30, 2008

Approaches to Algae Energy

Algae is one of the most primitive forms of life. But this primitive lifeform may help provide a bridge for humans to pass relatively unscathed from the petroleum economy to a more sustainable economy. Inventive researchers are trying different approaches:
Microalgae, the simplest and most primitive plants, are generally more efficient converters of solar energy than terrestrial plants and have a much higher energy potential. This possibility has lured entrepreneurs and venture capitalists into the research fray.

Start-ups in the United States and elsewhere are investigating myriad processes and products derived from two basic models: closed or open systems.

Closed systems use photobioreactors, clear containers that allow growers to carefully control the species and the environment...Open systems grow algae in ponds, raceways, or even in the wild.

LiveFuels uses open ponds to grow algae that are indigenous to the local environment, hoping that this will avoid the invasion problem. Since algae need nutrients to grow, including nitrogen and phosphorous, the company plans to feed agricultural runoff water - polluted with nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers - into its ponds...

Bionavitas, of Redmond, Washington, also grows native algae, but in deep, narrow canals, with a special optical system to bring light to the algae beneath the surface. It too hopes to harness nutrients from polluted wastewater; and because intense carbon dioxide inputs can speed growth, it envisages setting up sites next to a factory that could funnel smokestack emissions directly into its canals.

Vertigro, a U.S. company based in Vancouver, Canada, is testing single varieties of algae, grown in bioreactors that resemble hanging plastic bags, to see which grows best in a closed environment and produces the most oil. Its business plan is to sell its system to companies that would use it for commercial biofuel production...

Blue Marble Energy is putting algal biomass in anaerobic digesters to produce industrial chemicals and methane. The latter is combusted in a turbine to generate electricity and could also be used in fuel cells, said the chief executive, Kelly Ogilvie. Saleable byproducts include ammonia, anhydrous ammonia, and other industrial chemicals currently made with petroleum.

"It all comes down to how much is it going to cost to get a gallon of that oil," ...costs currently range from $6 to $100 a gallon, depending on the method...To reduce that cost the laboratory is focusing on the development of commercial co-products, like ethanol or animal feed, which could help to improve profitability.
The devil is in the details. Profitability depends upon trimming the process to its essentials, making the best use of products and by-products, and the continual application of focused innovation.

Algae do not ask for much. Sunlight, CO2, minimal nutrients, saltwater, brackish water or wastewater. It should not go unstated that it is business that is driving this promising approach to cleaner and more sustainable energy. Environmental lobbies seem focused strictly upon acquiring more power and money, for apparently inbred reasons of their own.



Blogger al fin said...

Finding economical and clean niches of operation. I like it.

9:26 AM  

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