"Here it is!" Jim Sears says with a tour guide's come-see enthusiasm. I stop, my feet stuck in six inches of fresh powder outside the Old Fort Collins power plant, but the contraption before us doesn't exactly inspire awe. Two parallel tracks, each about 60 feet long, protrude from the snow like the twin runners of a giant upended sled. A washing-machine-size box studded with dials and blank displays sits at one end. Nothing moves, nothing glows, nothing hums. The future of alternative energy sits silent before me. This is what's going to make gasoline obsolete?
Sears chuckles at my confusion. "Nothing's really set up at the moment," he explains. "The bags aren't hooked up. We don't want to damage the equipment by letting it sit in the snow." My eyes drift to the only spot of color in the entire crystalline scene: a wide acrylic tank off to the side that looks like an aquarium left to ferment in the windowsill. The water inside is seaweed green and so opaque it's almost milky. I run my finger over the top, brushing off snow as I go. "What's in here?" I ask. Sears eyes the tank fondly. "This is the first step," he says. "This is where the algae starts to grow."
Algae seems a strange contender for the mantle of World's Next Great Fuel, but the green goop has several qualities in its favor. Algae, made up of simple aquatic organisms that capture light energy through photosynthesis, produces vegetable oil. Vegetable oil, in turn, can be transformed into biodiesel, which can be used to power just about any diesel engine. (There are currently 13 million of them on American roads, a number that's expected to jump over the next decade.)
Algae has some important advantages over other oil-producing crops, like canola and soybeans. It can be grown in almost any enclosed space, it multiplies like gangbusters, and it requires very few inputs to flourish-mainly just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. "Because algae has a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, it can absorb nutrients very quickly," Sears says. "Its small size is what makes it mighty."
The proof is in the numbers. About 140 billion gallons of biodiesel would be needed every year to replace all petroleum-based transportation fuel in the U.S. It would take nearly three billion acres of fertile land to produce that amount with soybeans, and more than one billion acres to produce it with canola. Unfortunately, there are only 434 million acres of cropland in the entire country, and we probably want to reserve some of that to grow food. But because of its ability to propagate almost virally in a small space, algae could do the job in just 95 million acres of land. What's more, it doesn't need fertile soil to thrive. It grows in ponds, bags or tanks that can be just as easily set up in the desert-or next to a carbon-dioxide-spewing power plant-as in the country's breadbasket.
Sears claims that these efficiencies will allow Solix Biofuels, the company he founded, to create algae-based biodiesel that costs about the same as gasoline. But like any start-up trying to carve a niche in the post-oil age, Solix must struggle for answers before it can sell a thing: Which species of algae will produce the most oil? What's the best way to grow it? And not least, how do you extract the oil from the algae once it's grown? The research and debate at Solix is so fierce that it has already claimed one casualty-my guide, Jim Sears.
This is quite interesting, but like most of these alternative fuels, there's just no take-up yet by the major players. How long will it be before we can use this? And it says in the article that it will be the same price as gasoline! Maybe when this was written, gas prices hadn't rocketed.
For an alternative solution, look at these articles:
<a href="http://ezinearticles.com/?How-Does-a-Water-Powered-Car-Work---If-it-Works-at-All&id=1244412">How Does a Water Powered Car Work?</a>
<a href="http://waterforfuel.zanderboon.com/" target="_top">Run Your Car On Water</a>
I applaud Shell and Chevron for their foresight in making investments in algae oil companies (they both have). While it's possible that there is a mindset in existing oil companies that they should concentrate on what they already do (delivering petroleum products) rather than exploring alternate fuel production methods (much like Kodak moved slowly into digital cameras). I think that they will (eventually) figure out how to make a cost effective oil substitute (algae oil, thermal depolymerization, enzyme hydrolysys etc.)
What concerns me here, is that the "invisible hand" of the market may lag in it's path to the most efficient system (and damage our country and economy in the process); high oil prices are beneficial to oil companies (they make their profits as a percentage of oil prices, supply and demand benefits markets with low supply) so they might drag their feet in implementing a cheaper form of oil.
However, after some (more) quick research, it looks like algae oil isn't quite ready to go to your neighborhood station, as of November 2007, algae oil still cost about $20 a gallon.
My name is Sander Hazewinkel and currently my company is one of the largest "real" producers of marine algae in the world. We use state of the art closed systems that will outperform all the installations that I have seen on this website and that belong to the so called frontrunners. One of the things that really disturbs me,when I hear all these "pseudo" scientists claim enormous projected yields, is the energy cost that is involved in growing algae. I dare to state that it is impossible to gain a posititive energy balance with the production of algae. It's not the apparatus (toy) that you use to grow the algae that holds the solution to a positive energy balance. The problem is that the algae itself is not so efficient as some people want us to believe. I know from hands-on experience on a commercial production scale! But I also know and understand the math behind the problem. One of the people that describes a part of the math very much spot on is Krassen Dimitrov (google will find his article). If you are able to read some Dutch (google translate might be helpfull) you can read a presentation that I gave a couple of months ago for an organisation that is doing research on energy options for Afrika. www.fact-fuels.org/media_en/Presentation_Sander_Hazewinkel
It's not that i want to temper the enthusiasm for Algae, on the contrary! Algae are super as a nutrition (omega-3-fatty-acids, over 50% proteins, anti-oxidants and so on and on) all very important components for life and costing much more energy to produce otherwise than with algae.
So algae still hold a strong key to a more sustainable futere, but unfortunately not to a primairy source for energy!
I dare anyone to come-up with a complete lifecycle-anlysis on the production of algae that proves my point to be wrong and I dare to bet that nobody will come up with the whole (energy)cost figure because it is more sexy to talk about energyyields in stead of energy costs!
With kind regards,
LGem, I think you are wrong, and just do not want them to find the answer here. If it were not possiable the testing process would not have come this far. And please do not try and say I do not know what I am talking about as I am former Sr. Site Manager for a biodiesel refinery, a 10 million gallon a year facility, that made the highest quality Biodiesel produced in North America. Weekly ASTM testing of our fuel proved that. And just because the technology is not quite there, does not mean it will not be someday soon. If they find a way to do this, it will very much negativly impact you company, and that is what you are afraid of. If the cost and balance of this goes down that will force the cost of your product to drop reducing your profit. I know your rebuttle will be, if the production cost drops you will make more money, but I do not believe that you want to lower the cost of your product or deal with the competition you will have if this happens.
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