Algae as Biofuel

As fossil fuels are depleted from the earth, humans are looking for renewable energy. Some of the most popular sources of renewable energy include solar panels and windmills. While these can effectively produce clean energy, they are not without flaws; solar panels require clear skies and do not produce electricity at night, while windmills require wind to produce electricity. While the idea of using algae as energy dates back to the 1950s, demand for it has never been greater. About a decade ago, scientists became fascinated with the energy potential of algae. While further research and technological advances are required, algae hold much potential for a clean energy source with high yields in the foreseeable future.

The science behind using algae to produce fuel is not very complicated. Millions of microorganisms grow in ponds, lakes and rivers. These microorganisms contain lipids, which are fatty acid molecules, and which contain oil that, once extracted, can be used to power diesel engines. Organisms such as microalgae demonstrate future potential for producing energy. The problem with using algae is that there is not currently a viable method of extracting the lipids from them. Under current methods, extracting these lipids takes more energy than they are worth, which makes it unprofitable.

One of the main issues with lipid extraction from algae is that all moisture must be removed from them, so that they become a dry powder from which the lipids can be separated, which causes the process to require so much energy. A new method, invented by researchers at the University of Utah, may solve this problem. They have designed a jet mixer that will not require the algae to be dried. The new mixer shoots jets of solvent into jets of algae in liquid suspension. The jets provide the force required for the lipids to be separated, and they are transferred into the solvent stream. This new process requires less energy and can extract the lipids from algae much faster, taking only a few seconds. This new technology has the potential to produce algae biofuel at a price point that is competitive commercially.

Another solution to make algal biofuel production profitable is being explored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) National Bioenergy Center. While they predict that, even in the future, algal biofuel production will not be competitive with oil, they believe there is a way to make its production profitable. NREL has been exploring the viability of a “combined algal processing” (CAP) concept. This would require a facility that can combine the production of both biofuel and other products, such as surfactants, polyurethanes and plastic composites.

Then there are biofuel-focused companies like Synthetic Genomics, which partnered with ExxonMobil to develop ways of producing algal biofuel at an unprecedented scale. Companies like SG are now working on an outdoor field study growing naturally-occurring algae in several contained ponds in California. Synthetic Genomics and Exxon predict that, based on their progress, they will be able to produce 10,000 barrels of algal biofuel a day by 2025. Their research is proving to be very beneficial, as they have found ways to double the lipid content in algae from 20% to over 40% through genetic modification, among other methods.

While most of the companies making algal biofuel in recent years have gone out of business or shifted their focus from fuel to marketing algae for dietary supplements, food additives, animal feed and cosmetics, the future of algal biofuel still remains bright. Scientists have not given up on algae’s potential yet. Research that is currently in progress, as well as technological advances that will be made in the future, could make algal biofuel both sensible and profitable.