Biofuels: History, Demonstrations, End-products, Production Process, Costs
How are biofuels made from algae?
There are many different methods.
In one technique, massive quantities of algae are grown and then harvested. The oils are extracted from the harvest and then refined into biodiesel, gasoline, or even jet fuel. This method is the focus of most algae companies.
In another method, algae are modified to produce fuels directly. The algae themselves excrete ethanol or a hydrocarbon, into the growth medium as they grow. The ethanol or crude can then be extracted from the water via distillation, while the algae continue to produce more. No harvesting is required.
How long have researchers and companies been looking at algae? If it’s such a good idea, why hasn’t it been done sooner?
While some research was done in the 1970’s and 80’s as part of the Aquatic Species Program, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that advances in science made commercial production of algae fuels feasible, and the volatility and price spikes of petroleum oil became too frequent to ignore.
Have biofuels made from algae ever been tested?
Yes. Algae-based fuels have been successfully tested in a range of automobiles, boats, and commercial and military aircraft. In each and every test, algae-based fuels have performed flawlessly and met or exceed performance criteria.
Algae have helped power everything from a Ford F450 diesel truck to a Boeing 747 to a US Navy Seahawk helicopter to a plug-in hybrid electric Prius.
How many gallons of fuel can be derived from an acre of algae?
The generally accepted range of how much fuel can be produced from acre of algae is 2,000-5,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year. Many researchers believe this already impressive potential can be increased.
Why are the yields so high?
Algae yields are so high because they are among the most efficient organisms on the planet. Some strains are able to double in size in 24 hours, and can carry 40-70 percent of their mass as oil.
How many gallons per year of biofuels will the algae industry produce?
As with any new energy technology, it is difficult to make exact predictions on future production volumes, but experts project the algae-to-fuels industry will be producing billions of gallons annually by 2022. Most of these gallons will be fuels like biodiesel, as well as substitutes for gasoline and jet fuel.
Will algae-based biofuels be able to displace petroleum?
It’s really not a question of whether or not algae-based fuels can displace petroleum. Rather, algae-based fuels have the ability to contribute significant quantities of fuel to meet a growing global demand. These “wells” are above ground – they never need drilling and they never run dry.
It’s also important to remember that every gallon of algae-based biofuels produced in the United States will expand our supply of domestic energy, and reduce the amount of oil we must import or produce from unsustainable sources.
Will algae-based biofuels ever be cost competitive with traditional fuels? I’ve heard that they’ll always be too expensive.
The answer is yes. As the industry develops and reaches scale, the cost per gallon will continue to decrease. Conversely, experts agree that most of the “easy” petroleum oil has been discovered; as such, with decreasing supply as well as higher costs to discover and tap new wells, costs for petroleum are expected to increase in the coming decade.
The question really should be “how soon will algae-based fuels be competitive with petroleum”? The answer is … sooner than you think. Already companies are breaking ground on commercial production facilities, and analysts predict 6 billion gallons by 2022.
Is algal biomass a better feedstock for biofuels than corn, soy or other agricultural products?
Algae can’t do it alone. We need a range of potential fuel feedstocks that can collectively add up to a significant volume in order to replace a dwindling and finite supply of petroleum fuels.
But algae do have some unique attributes:
- they grow efficiently;
- require less land mass to produce the same volume of fuel;
- digest carbon; and
- can be used for energy, fuel, feed and food.
Expanding the supply of renewable energy in the United States will require an “all hands on deck” approach that utilizes a variety of feedstocks and technologies to produce clean, domestic fuels.
Doesn’t growing algae for fuel compete with food and make food prices go higher than they already are?
No. Because algae are grown on marginal land that is unsuitable for traditional agriculture, the production of algae-based fuels does not compete with food.
In fact, when algae are grown for biofuels and the oil is extracted, the remaining carbohydrates and proteins in the residual biomass are a valuable source of animal and aquaculture feed, as well as fertilizer that can be used in traditional agriculture.
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