Algal Biodiesel: Pros and Cons (A Response to “Could Algae be the New Corn?” by Julia Verdi)

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microalgaeThe following is a response to the article Could Algae be the New Corn? by Julia Verdi.  She raised the following questions... Does Algae pose the same risks as corn? Are biofuels the wrong way to go when it comes to identifying fuel sources?

by Frank J. Ciampa.
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Great article Julia! I did a study on algal biodiesel for one of my graduate classes and wanted to add some notable points.

1) Algal biodiesel is considered to be a third-generation biofuels, meaning that it does not come from a feedstock used for human dietary consumption, and has a very low land and water input requirements.  This is why algae are superior to plant-based feedstocks like soybeans, corn, switchgrass.  Algal production, or algaculture, has a smaller environmental footprint with regard to land use as it avoids large-scale deforestation, and the inherit problems associated with the continual increase of arable land.  Algaculture also avoids problems inherit with modern farming techniques.  Today agriculture has become and “industrialized” process.  In the United States, the number of farms has decreased, and productivity of each individual farm has increased.  However, this increased productivity has come at a cost.  Agricultural practices now rely heavily on the use of harmful chemicals as fertilizers and pesticides to optimize growing conditions for crops, including poor irrigation techniques and chemical fertilizers.

2) Energy density is important, but let’s talk about sheer bio oil productivity numbers. Algal biodiesel is favored over other biofuels made from plant-based feedstocks because algae are very simple organisms when compared to plant-based feedstocks, and do not produce excess tissue such as stems, leaves, or roots.  They receive all the physical support they require from their surrounding aquatic environment.  This means that a larger percentage of algae’s biological processes are devote to production of natural oils, resulting in a higher oil yield.  Studies have shown that production of bio oils for corn is around 145 kg/hectare/year, while Spirulina microalgae and diatom algae can produce up to 18,000 and 43,200 kg/hectare/year, respectively. Those numbers are staggering!

3) Algal biodiesel is a decarbonized liquid fuel which will allow for an easy transition into the existing infrastructure of pipelines and filling stations originally devoted to petroleum-derived fuels.  According to 2002 Census data, 121,446 filling stations are present in the United States.  Of which, approximately 35% – 40% currently sell petroleum diesel fuel.  This means that the United States has a sophisticated liquid fuel distribution system, and algal biodiesel should be quite capable of operating within its bounds.

You might be asking yourself, “How can we put algal biodiesel into the engines of our trucks and buses?  Won’t this be a problem?”  The answer is NO.  As a matter of historical interest, Rudolph Diesel first used peanut oil at the turn of the 20th century to demonstrate his patented diesel engine.  This means that the diesel engine was originally designed to run on biodiesel, and petroleum diesel fuel came into the picture much later.  Algal biodiesel is a quality fuel that can be used in existing diesel engines with a slight retrofit modification.  This retrofit can easily be installed and does not diminish the performance or the lifespan of the engine.  However, there have been problems with engine manufacturers not honoring warranties on engines with biodiesel retrofits.  This is primarily due to the reluctance of diesel engine manufactures to accept after-market technology improvements.  This basically comes down to a legality issue and how it is easier for companies to deny a warranty claim on a modified engine to save some money in the short run.  It is anticipated that as biodiesel retrofits become more widespread within the transportation industry, engine manufacturers will modify their warranties to accommodate biodiesel retrofits.

4) Algal biodiesel is a promising carbon mitigative solution, although it is not perfect.  There are some risks and limitations that need to be addressed before commercial production can occur.  One of the biggest problems with algal biodiesel is the high costs for implementing the technology.  David H Kurzman of Kurzman Cleantech L.P. said that as of 2009, “there is not yet a commercially viable algae approach”.  Luckily, there are no shortages of investors throughout the world who are looking to gain profits from companies working on developing a low cost business model that can scale up production to commercial levels.

Finding ways to reduce costs associated with every aspect of algal biodiesel production is essential.  There are fixed costs from the project’s inception starting with the construction of ponds, as well as the ongoing operational costs of culturing the algae species, providing nutrient and energy inputs, isolating the bio oil, and the conversion to a usable liquid fuel.  There are other ways to reduce overall costs by selling “waste” products of the Companies also hope to squeeze capital gains out of the process by turning the biomass remaining into animal feed or ethanol.  In order for algal biodiesel to have success in the future, it is important that the costs are reduced so that it is able to compete in an open market with similar liquid fuels.

5) Another limitation that will need to be overcome before algal biodiesel can be considered a successful commercial technology is identifying a steady and reliable source of carbon dioxide.  Every 1 unit of algal biomass produced requires twice that amount in carbon dioxide in order to sustain commercially viable productivity levels.  Ambient absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide would not be sufficient to sustain commercially viable algal production, despite concerns about its increased concentration over the past couple of hundred years (i.e., greenhouse gas effect).  This means that concentrated sources of carbon dioxide must be delivered to the algae diesel production site from fixed and mobile vehicle point sources.  One source could be captured carbon dioxide emissions from the stacks of coal-fired power plants.  Coal-fired power plants are obviously major sources of carbon dioxide, but how can you capture it efficiently and cost-effectively?  Again, companies are working on low-cost solutions, but a perfect solution has yet to be discovered.

6) There are also reservations regarding the control, or lack thereof, of factors related to production of algal biodiesel.  Weather changes, exposure to biological agents in the atmosphere and solar irradiation have the potential to significantly disrupt production.  These often unforeseen factors are difficult to plan for when operating an algal bio oil production facility.  Climatic conditions also play an important role when determining the best locations for algal production sites.  Sunny and warm growing conditions are achieved in desert areas during the daytime are optimal for algal growth and bio oil production, however, the abrupt drop in temperatures at night are prohibitive to sustaining the best growth rates.

Overall, I think that we should not give up on algae as a source for liquid fuels. The technology isn’t perfect, but luckily there are brilliant minds dedicated to solving the problem.  Petroleum has enough inherent problems and its days at the top are numbered.  Algal biodiesel could be the wave of the future.

© 2010, Frank Ciampa. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Frank Ciampa (1 Articles)

My name is Frank J. Ciampa and I am a graduate student studying Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard University. The coursework in my program has taught me a great deal about climate change and sustainability. I possess a strong knowledge of environmental issues, as well as the technical ability to effectively solve problems. My courses have ranged from generalized introductions on the science of global warming, to very detailed plans on how businesses should modify their operations to lead the way in the new climate-conscious economy. I understand the many different forms of renewable energy, as well as their practical applications. In addition, I have learned how different energy sources impact the environment and human health. Read my blog, Why not Sustainable? Follow me on Twitter.

  • http://www.cofactor.de cofactor

    Your post in a nutshell: we need to prove economical feasibility while solving the technical problems in recent systems – and this will take time… true and that makes sense!
    What I’m afraid of, are those companies that are communicating unrealistic numbers or are claiming that we will be able to fuel the world with algae as soon as tomorrow. This might lead to serious damage on the efforts to prove that algae can be a possibility to create a renewable drop in fuel…

  • http://twitter.com/carloBio carloBio

    No factual errors in this post but a gross over-simplification of the problem. I agree with cofactor that investors are being sold on the huge potential without getting a true picture of the technical and economic hurdles that are yet to be overcome. The days of fossil fuels are numbered, only time will tell what our energy infrastructure will look like in the future.

  • http://www.advancednrgsolutions.com AHenderson

    Good overview article, as to cost to implement the technology, that’s relative… the cost per acre to implement the technology and the revenue generated per acre will dictate that!

    As to the steady source of carbon… that is an issue, I would think factories and businesses with typically land around it (considering that land typically will not be considered for other profitable development) would be interested in implementing this technology for in house use and a profitable export.

    The money invested in some scrubber system could turn it into an actual profitable scrubber! With the existing infrastructure, Bio-fuel from algae and cellulose waste are the natural steps toward more efficient and zero emission vehicles.

    For more information on implementing algae cultivation technology: http://www.advancednrgsolutions.com/BioAlgae.html

  • http://www.scipiobiofuels.com Matt Snyder

    Hi Frank,

    Not a bad post. I don’t compliment many in my blogging efforts. Well done. I would though like to demonstrate how algae is commercially, technically and environmentally viable today, not 10 years from now.

    First, the automotive industry already has emissions mandates to deal with. As soon as a refiner can repeatably manufacture the test fuel, Indoline, from algae oil or “green crude”, the automotive industry will gladly adopt the Indoline-replacement. With such a replacement test fuel, as well as 100+ octane bio-gasoline made from algae cake using Fischer-Tropsch or some other process the auto industry will not be required to enslave themselves and their customers to overly complex, less than “reliable”, and overpriced hybrid vehicles. We could keep our cars!!

    For a steady source of CO2, you have many options to choose from. Slake Lime manufacturing, breweries, portland cement manufacturing, the list goes on and on. The reality is that co-location may not always be possible. But, as long as our facility has at least a rail siding, the CO2 can be delivered in tank cars via rail. Scrubbing will probably be the providers problem as the providers are now having to pay huge fines accruing daily for their unabated CO2 emissions.

    You also make an unwarranted assumption. Ponds are not the wave of the future for commercial biofuels production. Farmers and the like with land and a need for large quantities of fuels will be able to get away with using ponds or raceways. The heavy lifting in productivity will come from photobioreactors (PRBs). Yes, they are expensive. But our design has the ability to grow just about any species of algae and uses a harvesting method that will allow all algae harvested using this method to pass FDA inspection of algae for human consumption. This opens up options.

    Now, follow me closely. If we can grow omega-3′s (currently $180.00+/gal.) or we can grow B. Braunii from the crude algae oil biodiesel will be generated (as an ex.) which we can sell retail for $3.00/gal., by using a portion of the PBRs at a facility to grow both fuel as well as high value non-fuel use alga products, we achieve the, “Holy Grail” of algae based biofuels. We will be able to divorce the algae based biofuels industry from the concept of only finding economic viability when petroleum crude oil is above price X. As soon as we can prove the above is practicable, and determine the appropriate characteristics for production on a regional basis, algae wins!

    For more information please check our website at: http://www.scipiobiofuels.com

    Thank you for your time,

    Matt Snyder
    President/Director
    SCIPIO Biofuels Inc.

  • http://www.lce.com Tom Risley

    Frank,

    I really appreciate your insights. This alternative fuel business is certainly fascinating to say the least. Every discovery is exciting. I did want to make one comment relating to your item 3 – if I may. I’ve been working the past 30 years as a marine engineer with a variety of equipment including gas turbine engines, diesel engines, and boilers. Recently I’ve been supporting efforts of the U.S. Navy to develop test protocols for alternative fuels. It’s been a very interesting process and there is plenty of interest by our DoD to jump into the “algae pool” with both feet.

    Their apprehension along with all of the engine manufacturers can be simply put – “we don’t know what we don’t know” about these fuels. After years of evolving equipment and performance – both fuel efficiency and emissions (Tier IV is coming) – using “petroleum-stock” fuels, biofuels have emerged as potential alternatives or at least augmenting stocks. The only problem is characteristics like lubricity, aromatics, and compatibility (with the next tank of fuel) are well understood for standard petroluem-derived fuel stocks, however, they are not well understood or tested. Many engine manufacturers now permit B5 or B20, but few are willing to accept B100 or full biodiesel. It isn’t necessarily becuase of their reluctance of manufacturers to accept after-market improvements, but it rather the fear of the what ifs associated with an emerging market place of alternatives. Plenty of horror stories out there.

    I would be glad to provide more background if you would like.

    Tom Risley
    Director, Energy Programs
    Life Cycle Engineering

  • http://www.frankjciampa.com Frank J. Ciampa

    Thank you all for your great comments.

    Cofactor, the claims of companies regarding biodiesel production appear to valid. Most legitimate companies that are leading the industry clearly outline that they have produced a quality product, but commercial production has yet to be achieved. In fact, many highlight that their biggest problems that has yet to be solved is scaling their process to supply large volumes of biodiesel that can help quench current demand. This will be the true test for algal biodiesel companies and the laggards will get filtered out and fail.

    CarlBio, investors, of any kind, are generally sold on a promise or a great idea. But only foolish and inexperienced investors will aimlessly throw money at a company without some hard data proving that a solid investment opportunity exists. Not unlike most other investments, algal biodiesel companies have variable levels of risk, and investors have different tastes for those risks. Investors interested in funding those “long shot” companies know what they are getting into. No one can predict the future, but those that make an educated guess and turn out to be correct will reap the rewards they deserve.

    AHenderson, you are right on the ball with your comments on carbon. Many current algal biodiesel applications rely on passive exchange with the atmosphere. Some more sophisticated systems use concentrated CO2 feeds, but higher costs associated with the concentrated CO2 make the overall system cost prohibitive. I believe that one method for extracting CO2 from flue gasses of coal-fired power plants known as the amine process. I think that it would be worthwhile for algal biodiesel project developers to target facilities that generate CO2 as byproduct of their operations. A classmate of mine was looking at the feasibility of collecting the off-gasses from a chemical plant in India. The gas contained high concentrations of CO2, and would only need to be cooled down to a temperature that the algae organisms could withstand. Another source could be the gasses from beer breweries. Opportunities exist out in the real world and creative minds will begin to identify more sources of CO2 as the industry matures.

    Matt Snyder, I don’t think that the automotive industry has been pressed hard enough when it comes to emissions mandates. Plus, there is a significant connection between the auto manufacturers and the fuel industry. They are related enough that one will not radically branch off to adopt algal biodiesel leaving the other one out to dry. Both industries will need to realize and accept the benefits of the revolutionary fuel before it is widely used. Then, the two could work together to integrate the fuel into business models moving forward into the future. As for algae growing facilities, I used the pond raceway design because of the availability of data from case studies. It seems that PRBs might be a good option to start growing organisms, but only in small batches. It seems that their costs prohibit use for large scale productions. What is the output of your PRB, and do you think it can be scaled without significant costs?

    Tom Risley, I agree with your comments on the lack of available information regarding the specific performance factors of algal biodiesel. It seems that there are some “horror stories” as you mentioned, but I am willing to bet that there are also significant success stories out there of pilot studies of this alternative fuel. I am of the thought that once the word gets out about more and more of the success stories, engine companies will allow algal biodiesel to be used without reluctance. It would be fantastic if an engine company could take the lead on this initiative and to their own studies as to how certain biodiesel blends perform. This might already be happening, but I’m not sure. Either way, it looks as though algal biodiesel has a very promising future so it would be a smart business move to solidify a great position for the new future of alternative fuels.

  • Rrit3143

    This is all rubbish.  I have been working on algal photosynthesis for 30 years.  Algae do not have exceptionally high photosynthesis and the yield of biofuel from them is very low.  Algal ponds require huge amounts of water and nutrients and electrical power. Frank – the productivity figures you use are about 10 to 100 times too high.  They are BS that persist in the literature.
    I have been tryng to tell people this for years.  In algal biofuels there are two types of people- (1) those who do not understand enough biophyscs to understand what I am tryng to tell them and (2) those who do know but tell me to keep quiet.
    Energy like just about every environmental issue is a population problem.  There are too many people chasing too few resources.
    Dr Raymond J. Ritchie