What is Algae Biofuel?
Algae biofuel is also known as algal oil or biofuel which is considered as one of the third-generation biofuels and a good alternative to fossil fuel. Also, algae fuel is an alternative to biofuel sources, such as corn and sugarcane. This algae biofuel is generated by specific algae species from carbon dioxide, as this source is rich in energy oils. Whereas, when it was made from seaweed (macroalgae) it can be known as seaweed oil or seaweed fuel.
Some of the attractive characteristics of algal fuels are that they can be grown with only minimal impact on freshwater resources, they can be made using saline and even wastewater, have a high flash point, and they are biodegradable in nature and relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.
These species of algae are unicellular or diatom microalgae that can produce high compositions of carbohydrate which is ideal for ethanol production, while when it comes to biodiesel production high lipid compositions are best suited for the production of renewable distillates high hydrocarbon compositions are needed.
The demand for research about alternative forms of fuels in the last decade was the result of the increasing fuel costs and consumption, as well as the depletion of natural fuel resources. Several government agencies and companies are giving funds for the research to reduce the capital and operating costs of production and try and make the production of algae fuel commercially possible.
While, the best selection of algal species for biofuel production will be based on its growth rate, biomass specific contents of proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids, the overall supporting photosynthesis environment as well as its ability to sustain the culture. Moreover, algae cost more per unit mass as compared to other second-generation biofuel crops, due to operating costs and high capital. Aside from that, the algae’s potential as a renewable fuel source involves the increase of algal biomass productivity per acre. Some researchers claimed that algae could be 10 or even 100 times more productive as compared to traditional bioenergy crops. Achieving high productivity in real-world systems is the solution to sustainable and affordable algal biofuels. Once it was harvested, algae can be readily processed into the raw material to produce fuels for vehicles such as cars, large trucks, trains, and planes.
In terms of greenhouse gas emission, the same with fossil fuels, algae fuel also releases carbon dioxide when burned but algae fuel and other biofuels only release CO2 recently removed from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis as the algae or plant grew.
Algae Cultivation Systems
Algae can produce up to 300 times more oil per unit area than other conventional crops such as palms, soybeans, or rapeseed. There are three primary ways to grow algae for biofuel production, these are the open pond system, closed-loop system and photobioreactors.
Open Pond System
The open pond system is considered as one of the easiest methods to cultivate algae with high oil content. Through this method, algae are being grown in open ponds under very warm and sunny environments. Furthermore, the open pond system is consists of simple in-ground ponds, which are mostly mixed by a paddle wheel. These systems have low operating costs, low power requirements, and capital costs as compared to closed-loop and photobioreactor systems.
Although it is the simplest method of algae production, it also has some major disadvantages. An open system that uses a monoculture is vulnerable to viral infection. Due to this, the water temperature needs to be controlled to enhance the production of algae using this method.
The closed-loop system is good in producing algae more quickly and efficiently than the open pond system. In this method, algae are being placed in clear, plastic bags to allow them to be exposed to sunlight and get enough amount of sunlight.
These bags are being stored in a high place and protected from external elements using a cover. The clear plastic bag provides enough exposure to sunlight so it will increase the rate of algae production.
The greater the algae production, the greater the amount of oil will be extracted. Unlike the open pond method, this closed system (not exposed to open air) can prevent the problem of contamination by other organisms blown in by the air. The only problem for this cultivation system is to find a cheap source of sterile carbon dioxide.
Bioreactors are borosilicate glass tubes that are being employed, by most of the companies which use algae as a source of biofuels, to expose algae to sunlight. Within these glass tubes, the algae can grow at maximum levels and can be harvested every day.
This method can bring a very high output of algae and oil for producing biofuels. However, running a photobioreactor is more difficult and expensive as compared to the open pond system, but this can provide a high level of productivity and control.
Furthermore, a photobioreactor can be integrated into a closed-loop cogeneration system much more easily than the open pond systems or other algae cultivation methods.
Companies offering Algae Biofuels
Algenol Biofuels is a global, industrial biotechnology company that markets its patented algae technology for the production of ethanol and other fuels. It was founded in 2006 and was based in Southwest Florida. Patented technology of Algenol enables the production of the four most important fuels namely ethanol, gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel, by using proprietary algae, carbon dioxide, sunlight and saltwater for around $1.27 per gallon and can produce levels of 8,000 total gallons of liquid fuel per acre annually. Algenol’s technology produced high yields of algae biofuels and solely relied on patented photobioreactors and proprietary downstream techniques for very low-cost fuel production using carbon dioxide from industrial sources.
Blue Marble Production
Blue Marble Production is a company headquartered in Seattle that is dedicated to eliminating algae from algae-infested water. This in return cleans up the environment and at the same time allows the company to produce biofuel. Instead of solely focusing on the mass production of algae, the company also focused on how to minimize the byproducts. This company managed to recycle almost 100 percent of its water via reverse osmosis and was able to save about 26,000 gallons of water every month. While the gas produced as a byproduct of algae were also being recycled.
Diversified Technologies Inc.
Diversified Technologies Inc. is known for its Pulsed Electric Field (PEF) technology. This was created as a pre-treatment option to reduce the costs of oil extraction from algae. This technology is low in cost and has a low energy process that applies high voltage electric pulses to a slurry of algae.
Sapphire Energy is one of the leading companies in the algal biofuel industry that is being backed up by Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, the Wellcome Trust, Monsanto, and other large donors. After the experimentation of the various algae fuel production in 2007, the company changed its focus on producing what it calls “green crude” from algae in open raceway ponds. Sapphire built the first commercial demonstration algae fuel facility in New Mexico after receiving more than $100 million in federal funds in 2012. In 2013, Sapphire began doing algal biofuel commercial sales to Tesoro, which makes it one of the first companies, together with Solazyme, to sell algae fuel on the market.
Solazyme is one of the handfuls of companies that is being supported by oil companies such as Chevron. Furthermore, Solazyme was able to develop a method to use up to 80 percent of dry algae as oil. This method requires the algae to grow in a dark fermentation vessel and be fed by carbon substrates within their growth media. It has been said that Solazyme’s production method can produce more oil than those algae cultivated photosynthetically. Oil refineries can then take this algal oil and turn it into biodiesel, renewable diesel or jet fuels.
Origin Oils Inc.
Origin Oils Inc. managed to conduct research about the revolutionary method called the Helix Bioreactor, which is now altering the common closed-loop algae cultivation system. This method utilizes low energy lights in a helical pattern, which enables each algal cell to acquire the required amount of light. Sunlight can only penetrate a few inches through algal cells that make the light a limiting reagent in open-pond algae farms. Moreover, each lighting element in the bioreactor is being adjusted to emit specific wavelengths of light, since a full light spectrum is not good for the growth of algae.
Also, the bioreactor can address another key issue in algal cell growth by introducing CO2 and nutrients to the algae without disrupting the algae. Origin Oils Inc. combats these issues through the creation of their Quantum Fracturing technology which takes the CO2 and other nutrients and fractures them at extremely high pressures. Then delivers the micron-sized bubbles to the algae allowing the nutrients to be delivered at a much lower pressure, to maintain cells’ integrity.
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