Pond scum?
Algae-to-fuel research gains momentum, again

By Clarissa Kell-Holland
staff writer


With the record-high fuel prices of a year ago still fresh in the minds of many small-business truckers, there is a sense of urgency to explore alternative domestic fuel options to diesel.

“Going green” could soon have a new meaning for truckers who may one day power their trucks using algae-based crude oil.

While scientists have made great strides in developing research strategies for turning algae into oil, they still face many obstacles before a large volume of algae biofuel is truly ready for the commercial market, according to Al Darzins, who is the principal group manager for the National Bioenergy Center, which is part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. NREL is the foremost research laboratory for the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“The U.S. currently uses about 40 billion gallons of diesel for on-highway use. And so to try and get to the level where we are going to be displacing a lot of that is going to take a lot longer than just a year or two,” Darzins told Land Line.

“We have the ability to grow algae large-scale, we can harvest algae, we can extract the oil out of the algae, and we can even convert the oil into fuel, but can we do all of that cost-effectively and sustainably? Not yet.”

According to the NREL, biological questions about the organisms and engineering questions related to fuel production, distribution and quality standards must be answered for algae fuels to be competitive with the current price of a barrel of oil.

Darzins says the tests on jet planes running on a blend using a small percentage of algae-based fuel are, in his book, “a long way from commercialization.”

But he predicts that in the next five to 10 years an algae-diesel blend – or algae biofuel as it is called – will play a significant role as a substitute for diesel. However, he said he doesn’t see one alternative energy source taking center stage in curbing our dependence on foreign oil.

“In the future, there’s going to be a lot of different winners here, not just a particular one,” Darzins said. “Others like liquefied natural gas (LNG), algobiofuels will be in the mix. Others made from various thermo chemical approaches will all be part of this interesting mix in the future that’s going to be the solution.”

Why algae?
Darzins said the mass appeal of using algae is that it can be grown, harvested and refined domestically and can be grown in less-than-ideal conditions. According to NREL data, “algae can generate 30 times more oil per acre than plants used for biodiesel and other biofuels.”

Many species of algae don’t need fresh water and thrive in either brackish water, which contains some salt, or even seawater. He said algae also flourish when carbon dioxide – or CO2 – is pumped into the ponds. Using CO2 would also eliminate harmful greenhouse gases that are released into the air from smokestack flues. Darzins said some algae producers plan to locate their algae farms near coal-fired power plants or some other gas-fired power plant where their CO2 can be redirected to grow algae.

Another plus for pursuing algae as a fuel source is that the infrastructure is already in place to refine it. Darzins said petroleum refiners can “easily take this oil directly into their facilities and produce a very good renewable diesel.”

“They have at least a hundred years of technology development under their belts so let’s take advantage of those technologies,” Darzins said.

However, in the end, he said it’s all going to boil down to economics here. Many questions must still be answered as to how much it will cost for each one of those pieces to come together in an integrated process.

Although there has been much interest in pursuing electric-powered and battery-powered cars, he doesn’t see that as the best option for truckers.

“Those other options have limited mileage. If you are talking about a trucker, limited miles are not in their vocabulary, so you are going to need liquid transportation fuels, I predict, for the next 20 to 30 years down the line,” Darzins said. LL