Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Potential Algae Fuel: Lurking in the Swamps

The huge potential of algal biofuels is tempting enough to lure many dozens of startups and large investors. Still many years from profitable production, algal fuels may make their way into the economy by bootstrapping onto various collateral enterprises. For all its "behind the scenes" nature, the race is definitely on.
...algae's key attraction is that the organisms can be grown in sites as diverse as wastelands or deserts, so long as they are close to a water supply and preferably a rich source of carbon dioxide....With algae, the downstream oil to fuel conversion processes are coming along nicely - the challenges lie in the growth, harvesting and oil extraction...

...Designing the ponds or bioreactors that the algae grow in is a key challenge in increasing productivity, says Stephen Skill, who works on algae at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, UK. Growing algae in photobioreactors, the industrial equivalent of a test tube, offers protection to the algae and enables full environmental control. But they are costly to build and not particularly suitable for large scale production of low-price oil.

...With more than 30,000 known species of algae, finding the most suitable strain is not an easy task. There will not be just one 'magic strain', points out Skill - a different species is likely to be needed for every location to ensure that a consistent amount of oil is produced all year round, despite fluctuations in temperature and sunlight. As each species of algae has evolved to excel in a specific location, the most suitable strains are most likely to be found close to proposed algae cultivation sites. _Bioenergy
Large oil companies such as Shell and Chevron/Phillips are part of the organised stampede attempting to hit the sweet spot of algal production. Algal biofuels are likely to emerge gradually, as different companies find the best combination of algal strains and oil extraction/conversion processes. The ongoing price of oil will have much to do with how quickly algal fuels emerge from the swamps.

Many other factors can affect the development of algal fuels--including government mandates governing greenhouse gas production, etc. Once government develops a strong interest in algal fuels, the effect on the market will become badly skewed, and standard methods of economic/industrial/technological prognostication go out the window.



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