Biodiesel from Algae Holds Promise

By David L. Brown

The challenge of finding renewable sources of energy continues to haunt humanity. The misguided ethanol program that turns corn into alcohol has backfired, driving up food prices and helping create scarcity. Biodiesel made from soybeans is similarly plagued with problems. Other ideas such as growing switchgrass or utilizing wood chips and plant residue have failed to prove practical. One of the problems with those is the high input required to collect, transport and process the plant material.

Another option that has been kicked around for several years now is the idea of producing ethanol from algae, a.k.a. pond scum. Algae actually produces oil which can be extracted and used to replace petroleum. In the presence of sunlight and CO² algae has the ability to double its weight several timea a day. Under controlled conditions, an acre devoted to algae can produce as much as 15 times more biomass per year than an acre devoted to corn. And the good news is that algae does not require large inputs in the form of fuel, fertilizer and chemicals.

But that isn’t all—in theory algae actually grows even more rapidly when fed additional CO² and it can thrive on organic input from sewage, animal waste and other effluents. According to an article that appeared last year on the Science Daily website (here), algae could not only help replace fossil fuels, but help remove carbon from the air while reducing soil and water pollution.

Now no less an entity that ExxonMobil, that giant of fossil fuel companies, has joined the algae bandwagon, according to a report today on the web site of the British newspaper The Independent. Because shis story is so important (and not too long), I will quote it in its entirety:

Oil giant Exxon sees the future–and it is green algae

By Stephen Foley in New York

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The oil giant that environmentalists love to hate, ExxonMobil, which for years denied the existence of man-made climate change, is sensationally “going green” in a very literal sense – investing $600m (£369m) in algae.

The company says it believes it can make a new kind of fuel for cars and aircraft, one that can be produced in its existing refineries and will not require modification of vehicles’ engines.

At the heart of the project is Craig Venter, the scientist best known for his private-sector effort to sequence the human genome, and his latest company, Synthetic Genomics.

Exxon is putting $300m into its own research and at least as much again into Synthetic Genomic’s efforts to build a lab and, ultimately, large-scale production facilities. Both sides were enthusiastic but cautious announcing the partnership yesterday. “We need to be realistic,” said Emil Jacobs, vice-president of research at Exxon. “This is not going to be easy, and there are no guarantees of success.”

Spending on the algae fuels project will require only a fraction of Exxon’s annual capital budgets of $25bn to $30bn, but it will be the world’s largest biofuels development project of its kind, Mr Venter said.

Environmentalists are keen on algae as a fuel source because, unlike many ethanol products, it is not taking up land, water and crops that might otherwise be given over to the production of food.

ExxonMobil has come under pressure from shareholders – including descendants of its founder, John D Rockefeller – to diversify from fossil fuels, though management insists oil and gas will continue to be the dominant sources of fuel for decades to come.

BP already has a partnership with Synthetic Genomics. Royal Dutch Shell, which is second to ExxonMobil in global refining capacity, announced plans in December for an algae project in Hawaii.

As you can see, ExxonMobil is hardly the first to explore this alternative fuel concept, but it is noteworthy that the world’s largest energy company has recognized the necessity to begin seeking ways to replace petroleum. It is also noteworthy that Craig Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics is involved with Exxon in the endeavor. Venter is famous for having been the first to map the human genome. On the home page of its web site (here), Synthetic Genomics, Inc. provides the following brief position statement:

The world is facing increasingly difficult challenges today. Population growth resulting in the growing demand for critical resources such as energy, clean water, food and medicine are taxing our fragile planet. To fulfill these needs we need disruptive technologies. We believe genomic advances offer the world viable, sustainable alternatives.

At Synthetic Genomics Inc. we are creating genomic-driven commercial solutions to revolutionize many industries. We have started by focusing on energy, but we imagine a future where our science could be used to produce a variety of products, from synthetically derived vaccines to prevent human diseases to efficient cost effective ways to create clean drinking water. The world is dependent on science and we’re leading the way in turning novel science into life-changing solutions.

The latest news about algae demonstrates that there may be viable long-term alternatives to fossil fuels. It’s too bad progress on these and similar programs was not begun several decades ago when the first oil shortages occurred. Exxon’s spokesperson states that oil and gas will remain “dominant” for decades to come, but falling production tells a different story. We are past the Oil Peak and the era of cheap and plentiful oil is over. We are now in a period where prices and supplies are creating a yo-yo market, and that cannot provide a sound basis for economic stability.

Here is an artist’s rendering showing a conception of how an algae farm could be built in a desert environment unsuited for agricultural use. The facility would produce biodiesel fuel.

algae_farm

We need to develop all kinds of truly sustainable energy sources as rapidly as possible. That includes wind, solar, wave, geothermal, and now algae farming. Our future depends upon it.

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