Is Algae Fuel Set to Take Over Petroleum?
Is Algae Fuel Set to Take Over Petroleum?
Petroleum based fuels currently supply most of the world’s power, and they have for some time. Despite that, that are a surprising number of options that could replace it very easily. While most people know about biofuels, and some people even use them, it’s well understand that we simply don’t have the land resources to grow sustainable biofuel products for powering gasoline motors. However, what we do have is a nearly unlimited amount of otherwise unusable ocean space. In fact, with similar government subsidies to petroleum fuels, experts suggest that algae based fuels could achieve parity by 2018 (they cost the same as petroleum). Why aren’t we using it? We are, sort of.
What is Algae Based Fuel
Algae based fuels are based on the oils in algae, similarly to other biofuels. The process involves extracting the lipids from the algae to produce oils, which can then be processed into diesel, kerosene, gasoline, butanol, and methane. After extracting the lipids, the remaining carbohydrate portion of the algae can also be converted into bio ethanol, meaning that in total, a great deal of the algae is used. These fuels can then be used in existing motors similarly to the fuels that they are replacing, which means that they could be put into use in energy production, in automobiles, and in construction. The remaining material can be pellatized and used as a fuel to burn in boilers, and for other fire sources.
Why is It So Great?
Why are algae based fuels an improvement over terrestrial bio fuels? Why are bio fuels better than petroleum fuels? Actually there are a lot of complex reasons as to why algae would be a significant improvement over terrestrial based fuels such as corn and sugar cane.
Improvement Over Terestrial Crops – Algae based fuel has a number of advantages over terrestrial crops. First, algae grows more quickly. An algae farm can grow so quickly that it allows for daily harvests, which means a constant production of biofuel. It’s also relatively easy to farm directly in the ocean, or in an algae farm, providing there are some ways to harvest the algae.
- Algae does not compete with terrestrial crops. Algae can be grown in brackish water, in land not suitable for crop-farming, and directly in the sea (macro algae). It can also be grown in sewers, where it actually purifies water.
- Algae can produce 2,000-5,000 gallons of biofuel, per acre, per year.
Improvement over Petroleum – Algae is a very clear improvement over petroleum based fuels for a number of reasons. First, algae actually produces oxygen and consumes C02 during growth, this makes it a huge improvement over petroleum, which only produces C02. In addition, algae is grown quickly, organically, and with little impact to its surrounding environment, which is literally the opposite of drilling for or fracking for petroleum. And, with no toxic byproducts, only full usable byproducts, it’s also more useful, provides no hazardous waste, and doesn’t pollute the ground around it.
Can Algae Replace Petroleum?
As it currently stands, freshwater algae growth cannot and should not replace petroleum. However, ocean based macro algae could eventually. Why shouldn’t freshwater algae be used? It places too high of a demand on water, land, and resources, and eventually consumes more energy than it makes up for. That’s a huge problem, especially considering that it would require somewhere around 123 billions of gallons of water to produce just 5% of the USA’s petroleum fuel usage with algae.
Currently, the existing methods of growing, harvesting, and processing algae into biofuel is quite simply too expensive to be feasible. While companies including Algenol, Solazyme, Sapphire Energy, Diversified Technologies, Proviron, Genifuels, Origin Oils, and several more are currently working with algae based fuels, prices are expensive. In fact, Solazyme sold biodiesel to the U.S. navy at $424 a gallon in 2011, most studies from the period, including one from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, show that current drying methods cost $240 and $332 per barrel of algae based fuel. That’s quite a bit.
However, with new technologies, and in increasing turn away from freshwater growth and towards ocean growth, costs are dropping. In fact, as of 2014, it’s possible to produce algae biofuels for $7.50 per gallon, and the U.S. is currently invested in bringing costs down to $3 per gallon. Proviron is one company that is working to reduce costs using closed systems heavily scaled up, which they expect to reduce growing costs by 90%. Diversified Technologies is also working to reduce costs, but for processing. Currently, it costs about $1.75 per gallon to dry and process algae to turn into biofuels, Diversified Technologies is trying to cut out the drying process by using a technology called Pulsed Electric Field, which reduces oil extraction costs to just $0.10 cents per gallon.
Current research is involved in producing new strains of algae that grow more quickly and require fewer nutrients, while producing more oil, in providing better extraction methods, and in creating a high-yield, low-cost harvest method. However, the fruition of this technology could still be as many as 25 years away.
Eventually, algae based fuels sound better than they actually are, for the simple reason that we cannot produce them cheaply enough to compete with petroleum products. For that reason, wind, solar, and nuclear power sources are much more likely to take over from petroleum, but we could also eventually see a combination of many different types of green power.
What do you think? Should we be investing more into biofuel production like algae based fuels?