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Scientific American Observation: Co-location could make algae biofuels affordable

February 22, 2010

In a recent article, Scientific American concluded that co-locating algae biofuels production might make this technology more economically feasible. Economist Catherine Keske reached the same conclusion regarding anaerobic digestion technology for the arid west. Her August 2009 report to the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office, describes why co-location might be a viable option for dry, western states. We also posted a summary on this blog.

[Source: Scientific American]

Researchers are continuing to develop strains of algae that yield a greater volume of oily compounds that can be processed into biofuels. But as more new and established companies examine how to scale up lab processes to commercial levels, scientists and engineers seem to be finding that standalone operations may not be economically viable. Co-locating algae farms with other industrial facilities could be one strategy that makes algal biofuels pay.

Typical algae strains use sunlight and water to convert carbon dioxide into lipids. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can boost production, depending on the process. At prototype scales, supplying the “inputs” is not a problem, but at industrial scales, large quantities will be needed. Plentiful sources of CO2 and other nutrients are not readily available in many places, and even where they are, purchasing them at market prices could make algal biofuels too expensive.

The answer? Turn the waste from other industries into a resource for this new one, helping to solve the waste problem at the same time. With or without realizing it, various scientists speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference, which wraps up here today, were promoting the notion that algae operations should be located next to industries that can supply one or more of the nutrient streams.

For example, algae production facilities could be located next to coal-fired power plants, which happen to be under increasing pressure and regulation to reduce CO2 emissions. Instead of spending money to sequester that carbon, say, underground, why not sell it, cheap, to an adjacent algae facility? Indeed, the Seambiotic algae plant in Tel Aviv, Israel, is tapping the flue gas of a coal plant next door.

Similarly, algae producers could locate near municipal wastewater treatment plants. “Cleansed” water that is usually deposited in rivers or other water bodies is generally safe for the environment, but still usually contains too much nitrogen or phosphorus for human consumption. Algae, however, thrive on those very compounds, and the alternative of purchasing them as fertilizer leaves a large environment footprint. Of course, the water itself is needed for algae production. A pilot plant run by Sunrise Ridge Algae in Austin, Tex., is piping in this resource from the Hornsby Bend wastewater plant there. Sunrise was hoping that enough CO2 could also be extracted from the wastewater, but the flow coming from Hornsby’s anaerobic digesters was inconsistent, not a big surprise since the system was not built to supply CO2, per se.

These integration concepts can be taken further, noted Norm Whitten, CEO at Sunrise. When the algae are harvested for their lipids, the remaining plant matter can be processed into animal feed, or converted into a syrupy liquid he calls bioleum that can be burned somewhat like oil, enhancing the economics of an algae biofuel plant. Whitten also noted that cement plants generate enormous quantities of CO2—about one ton for every ton of cement produced-which could be a nutrient stream for algae plants. And waste heat from cement or power plants could be used to warm algae ponds, bags or tubes to accelerate growth. Connecting all these dots, Whitten noted that the Route 35 corridor in Texas is home to many cement plants, which could supply CO2 and waste heat, and is also home to oil refineries, which could process the bioleum.

Whether such combinations will make algal biofuel commercially competitive remains to be seen, but it seems likely that co-location will be a big factor making a sizeable industry possible.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. anonymous permalink
    February 23, 2010 1:03 pm

    US Government has spent over $2.5 billion dollars on algae research in the last 35 years and all we have to show for it are shelves full of useless patents. Algae have been researched at universities and in laboratories in the US for over 50 years, financed in significant part by government funds. One of the largest problems is that the research has been done in laboratories and at universities, using federal funds, and there is fear at that level that commercialization will ‘ruin it for them’. What it will ruin is the steady stream of ‘free’ money flowing from the DOE, NREL, the DOD, DARPA and other Washington-based agencies to University Row. It was most disconcerting to hear from more than one agency that the funds it awards are, by Congressional mandate, restricted to research. If we could invest one years’ worth of awards into commercialization instead of research, we could easily move this industry into commercialization. The research would be needed to improve technologies, but Microsoft and the American Petroleum Industry, among others, can confirm that this is a necessary component of any industry growth.

    According to my sources. another large problem is, in order to be a grant award recipient, the algae technologies must be investigated and approved by NREL, and that NREL is not particularly supportive of the private initiative. NREL is the same government agency that ran out of money and stopped the otherwise successful Aquatic Species Program after 18 years of federal funding. After the Consortium grant announcement, sources at various government agencies, including NREL itself, shared the fact that grants would only be awarded to proposed groups that included government agencies in their consortia. The truth of that statement lies in the fact that one of the groups that recently received an award is led by NREL and the other by the David Danforth Plant Science Center, and includes two national laboratories (one of which is also a participant in the NREL award) and 11 universities. According to its website, “Scientists at the Danforth Center receive more than half of their funding from federal agencies via competitive grant programs, with the rest of the funding coming from private companies and foundations. In addition to the USDA and the NSF, other federal granting agencies that fund research at the Center include the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency…”. In the last 2 years, it has received grants from the Department of Transportation and the National Sciences Foundation relating to biofuels, in addition to housing one of the DOE’s Energy Frontier Research Centers.

    Federal agencies are incapable of commercializing anything. The only ones that are even remotely designed to earn money are those that regulate the financial institutions, and we all know that the American banking system has failed us miserably. Until someone in Washington who has power and authority to stop this steady stream of funding to nowhere, listening as the algae researchers continue to claim that they are 3-5 years away from completing their research, it’s too expensive and they need more time and money, they will receive grant money from the DOE, NREL, DOD and DARPA. Nothing will ever get commercialized at the university level. Until there is an industry, there is no value to the results of the research. Until development of this industry is taken out of the hands of the research community, and put into the hands of the business, not corporate, community, this industry will never support reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

    The question you need to be asking is ” Does the US really want to get off of foreign oil or do we want to continue to fund the algae researchers at the universities.” The problem is we can grow, harvest and extract algae today with all “off-the-shelf” proven technology. We no not need genetic modification at all when there are existing algae strains currently on the market with 30-60% oil content. Algae production requires far less land and water than any other terrestrial crop (see page 194 of the DOE’s National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap), which has the farmers in an uproar right now. The ethanol credits went away, allegedly shutting down an industry – can it really be that without the tax credit, years of time, effort and expense will be for naught, leaving us with unedible genetically modified corn fields?

  2. March 12, 2010 11:01 pm

    I hate rainy days! urgh I’ve been on your blog hours now I need something better to do! ( not that there anything wrong with your blog 🙂 )

  3. March 15, 2010 8:41 am

    I wrote a couple articles about the same subject but you seem to know a bit more about it than I do.

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