21st Century Energy Solutions: Algal Biomass

I'm still having a little trouble comprehending the scope of our success in the election. Races I thought we might barely lose we won, and ones I thought we might barely win ended up being blowouts. Amazing. But hovering over the post-coital bliss is the horrible state of our economy, and the fear that the changes we need will be lost in the desperate struggle to survive until the economy turns around. But if North Carolina is going to not only survive but prosper, we're going to have to find the resources to take bold, innovative steps, especially in the area of energy production and usage.

Usually when we discuss energy, we're either talking about power generation methods or fuel needs for vehicles, because the two seldom cross paths. Algae has the potential of playing an important role in each field, and will help us attain two very important goals: becoming less reliant on foreign oil and reducing our carbon emissions from coal-fired power sources.

Biofuels have been demonstrated to be a viable alternative to standard crude oil-based petroleum, and could (theoretically) replace a sizable portion of our current oil demand. But our early focus on food crops as a feedstock appears to have been a mistake, and a new direction is desperately needed.

While there are many potential sources for fuel that wouldn't have a notable impact on food supply, algal biomass stands out head and shoulders above the others. From the "renewable" angle, consider this: in the easily achievable proper environment, algae can double its biomass in a 24 hour period. For those of you who make the mistake of "skimming" my painstakingly constructed prose, I'll repeat that: algae can double its biomass in a 24 hour period. Combining that information with the facts that algae does not suck nutrients from the soil like crops do and can be incubated using grey water sources, it's in a league of its own as a renewable source.

In addition to its amazing growth/cultivation aspects, algae is also an incredibly "rich" source for fuel, with per-weight yield potentials some 50 times greater than switchgrass. And due to its physiological traits, algae has a high oil content (approximately 50%), allowing it to yield 100 times more oil per acre than soybeans.

But these are not recent revelations. Some folks have been exploring algae's potentials for decades, and new technologies for refining/extracting/synthesizing the useful elements from algae have been developed recently. And not surprisingly, N.C. State has been leading the charge:

Centia(TM), an advanced biofuels
conversion technology being developed by North Carolina State University, has
been awarded a $200k development grant from the Biofuels Center of North
Carolina. The Centia(TM) process can take any renewable oil input source
(e.g., oils derived from agriculture crops, algae, animal fats, waste greases,
etc.) and produce transportation fuels that are 1-for-1 replacements for
petroleum-based jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline. Fuels produced from Centia(TM)
could be operated in engines, stored, and distributed in an identical manner
to fossil fuels today. The process was developed in 2006 by North Carolina
State University (NCSU) and has been licensed exclusively by Diversified
Energy Corporation.

Bolding mine, and time for a little controversial argument session. Steve needs a little help understanding a few things. What in the world is a public university doing taking public grants for research and then turning around and granting a monopolistic "exclusive" license to a private corporation headquartered in another state? Forgetting for a moment our desire to bring "green jobs" to our state and my inability to find any Diversified Energy Corporation jobs coming to North Carolina, this "exclusive license" issue has me gnashing my teeth, and will (I believe) have an adverse impact on the scalability of using this technology, which is a critical aspect of fomenting widespread use of innovative technologies. And in case you're wondering, it's not the same company that retails propane in North Carolina.

I understand the economics of public/private ventures, and I'm sure N.C. State will make some good coin from this, but I believe this is a prime example of why we need to more directly manage North Carolina's resources and potential if we want to be a world leader in these fields and benefit from such. But...I am also willing to admit that my opinions on this may be based on naive purity, and this approach may be exactly what Dr. Green ordered. Let's talk.

The second "field" I mentioned above is that of power generation, and algae's potential role as a check on carbon emissions from said field. From the early stages of its life cycle, algae is a voracious consumer of carbon dioxide, and industrial smokestacks are (by far) the richest source available to quench this appetite. Realizing this, some really smart folks have started "farming" algae by placing suspended plastic bags inside those nasty smokestacks, substantially reducing the Co2 emitted while feeding the algae itself:

According to GreenFuel,

“A single pass through the GreenFuel system significantly reduces carbon dioxide in the waste gas. Using the sun as a source of energy, algae convert the CO2 into valuable compounds. Growing up to 30 times faster than other terrestrial plants, algae are regularly harvested for conversion into biofuels, feed, or can be recycled back to the host facility. Recycling algae in a closed system reduces the need for fossil fuels”.

Company founder Isaac Berzin believes that,

“at commercial scale, he will cut capital costs enough to beat oil at $60 per barrel. Burning the algae fuel means the carbon has been used twice before being released, displacing greenhouse gas emissions from burning oil, and adding to the power company’s profitability when carbon is regulated.”

What a concept, creating biofuels from carbon dioxide and cleaning the air at the same time! There’s no need for potable water or fertile land, and the installation requires no retooling of existing facilities. In addition, operations at the site are not interrupted and there is no exposure to hazardous materials or other risks.

GreenFuel says it has successfully installed its systems at gas, coal and oil burning facilities.

I'm dedicating this diary to my son Steven, who's been preaching to me about the potential for algae for some time now. He also mentioned to me yesterday that, now that the election is over, we at BlueNC need to focus on presenting and refining solutions to the myriad issues facing the candidates we helped to elect, which I agree with wholeheartedly.


Algae made the news on the radio today, too

Wish I could remember where ... I was driving back from the mountains.

Thanks for this informative post.

Hopefully it was positive

There have been several cases of harmful algae blooms (HABs) reported in the last few years, which can be pretty nasty. The one in lake Erie is so big it can be spotted from space.

It was positive

about the importance of moving away from competing with food supplies to create biofuels. As soon as the subject was mentioned, I thought "algae" and then they launched into a discussion of same.

HABs are all the rage these days ... is there any reason they wouldn't have the same potential for fuel as "friendly" algae? I have a lake full of the stuff every spring. Maybe we can turn it into a revenue stream! (Pun intended.)

It looks like "wild" algae can also

be harvested, but the cross-contamination by various strains can produce some funky toxins, and the refining of this type of algae takes a different process. These guys are doing it in New Zealand, and it appears that harvesting the wild stuff is a good way to clean up water sources, too:

ABC harvests algae directly from the settling ponds of standard Effluent Management (EM) Systems and other nutrient-rich water. The process can be used in many industries that produce a waste stream, including the transport, dairy, meat and paper industries.

The two-step process firstly optimises the ponds' productive capacity, and secondly, determines the most efficient and economic way of harvesting the pond algae. Algae are provided with full opportunity to exploit the nutrients available in the settling ponds, thereby cleaning up the water. The algae are then harvested to remove the remaining contaminant. A last stage of bio-remediation, still in development, will ensure that the water discharge from the process exceeds acceptable quality standards.

The water and sludge treatment process is an elegant clean-up and management service to councils responsible for sewage treatment systems while also generating a low-cost feedstock for conversion to fuel.

Good News

It's great to hear N.C. State has dipped their foot in the algal pool. If you want to see more evidence of some ambitious projects in this field, look at the U.K. (here and here) because it's very inspiring.

Cheers to the dedication, and those do sound like things I'd say!

But, the question is...

how quickly can algae double its biomass? Is it fast enough to ....gotcha!

It is possible that NC State sold the license to the only company that was willing to pay for it and actually see it through to some sort of real-life product. It would be great if those folks made some commitment along the way to push their research forward here in North Carolina. But, in the end if it helps right the climate, good 'nuff I guess.

"You could say, 'Look, is this guy, Laden, really the bad guy that's depicted?' Most of us have never heard of him before." John McCain, following Clinton's strikes on al Qaeda camps

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Yeah, it looks like

a pretty dynamic company that's going to take the ball and run with it, but the idea of them having exclusive rights to put the technology to use just doesn't sit well with me. If the process is as viable as it sounds, it should be put to use all over the world, from small to large scale.

Thanks for posting this info, Steve....

I always find it of interest about the alternatives that we are going to need. On the algae bloom, I can remember a few years back while living in Florida, I spent quite a lot of time fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, some mile north of the outlets from the Everglades. The runoff from some huge plantations mostly owned by US Sugar ran down into the Florida Gulf, near the Keys. In the warmer months huge blooms drifted along the coast where I might have been, and if it was with an onshore wind, You could smell it, and by the time I got to my dock, I would be hacking and sneezing from the gases. But that algae was from fertilizer chemicals, which are probably quite different from carbon based algae that are being tested. But it sounds promising, if we can keep Exxon out of it!

Science fiction --> science fact again

Algal biomass has been part of SFnal space stations for decades. They tend to use it for things like turning CO2 into O2, but one presumes it can also be used to power the stations. And if it's blue-green algae, people can get their vitamin B12 from it.

All in all, it's pretty exciting. I hope a flock of people thinking NEXT BEST THING EVER! doesn't screw it up for everyone else.

In Nathan Lowell's podcasts...

they sell off the "sludge" for growing mushrooms.

"You could say, 'Look, is this guy, Laden, really the bad guy that's depicted?' Most of us have never heard of him before." John McCain, following Clinton's strikes on al Qaeda camps

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

I'm a big fan of Soylent Green myself

No painfully boring viewings, vigils or funerals, you got your protein and vitamins in there, throw a little horseradish or Grey Poupon on the thing and it's downright tasty, etc.

It's making me hungry just thinking about it. ;)