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Algae Farming for Fuel

Iíve been spending quite a bit of time studying articles on renewable energy lately. I figure that if I can no longer earn a living in the electronics industry that perhaps I can do something in renewables.  There seems to be a lot of discussions in the media these days about shifting to different fuels.  Iím glad to see that the US is finally starting to do something about our dependence on foreign oil.  There are all kinds of schemes underway to produce synthetic fuel from coal, corn, cellulose and natural gas.  But, very little has been said about algae farming.  Algae is the fastest growing plant on earth.  Algae grows as microscopic plant cells and can double its numbers in as little as two hours.  If you have a pound of the cells growing in a nutrient rich environment, in two hours, you could have two pounds.  Wait another two hours you could have four pounds, then eight, then sixteen and so on. In theory, a one pound feed stock could be turned into 100 pounds in one day.  

Some custom algae varieties can contain up to 60% of vegetable oil by weight.  To harvest the oil, the cell walls are first broken open by ultrasonic methods, and then the oil is separated from the water.  The oil can then be easily turned into diesel and aviation fuel.  The solid byproducts of the process have other uses too, so little or nothing is wasted.  By growing the stuff vertically in tall clear plastic bags, which are exposed to sunlight and feeding it carbon dioxide and plant food, some pilot growing plants have claimed a production rate of 200,000 gallons of oil per acre per year.  This is a staggering figure.  It makes ethanol production from corn or cellulose look puny.  The highest figure for cellulose fuel farming I have seen used switchgrass as a feed stock and claimed 2000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year.  This huge oil production from algae figure does not even count the additional fuel that might be produced, if the cellulose from the harvested algae cell walls were also turned into fuel, in the form of ethanol.  
My imagination runs wild when I think about what could be done if this fuel production method were to be scaled up.  Plots of land near an airport might be turned into fuel farms for the jet engines served by the airport.  Farmers might have a scaled down fully automatic algae production system to produce all the fuel they need.  Gas stations might have acres of land behind them, which are turned into fuel farms.  State, county and city governments might own and operate their own farms to fuel their vehicles. Ponds and lakes that periodically have to be cleared of pond scum algae by the introduction of copper sulphate might actually encourage stains of algae to grow, which are then periodically harvested. 
Coal fired electricity generating plants might recycle the carbon dioxide they produce by feeding huge algae farms nearby.  There is a small algae production pilot plant here in Colorado, which is harvesting the carbon dioxide produced by a local beer brewery and feeding it to their algae plants.  This is a neat way to recycle the carbon. I sure would like to see these systems scaled up so they can start making a real impact on our need for non-petroleum based energy.
vertical algae farming frames large scale algae farming
Vertical Algae Farming Large Scale Algae Farming


September 2009  First Issue

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