Could carbon-eating algae change how we produce liquid fuels by 2020? Can we ‘grow’ energy rather than pull it out of the ground? A British energy R&D firm believes the answer is yes.
UK-based Carbon Trust, which works to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy, has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with an ambitious mission: to commercialize the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil based oil by 2020.
Carbon Trust’s multi-million pound investment will be led through its Advanced Bioenergy Accelerator and focused on microalgae that can be cultivated and manipulated to produce high yields of oil using carbon-rich feedstocks.
This effort is another signal that the long-term future of bioenergy is more likely to tap the power of microbes (algae/bacteria) rather than plant based resources like corn, soy and palm oil.
Carbon Trust’s initial forecasts suggest that algae-based biofuels could replace over 70 billion litres of fossil derived fuels used worldwide annually in road transport and aviation by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of over £15 billion.
Algae fuels? A Future inspired by the Past
The Industrial Revolution has been based on capturing energy released from breaking chemical bonds of carbon and hydrogen. We blew up coal’s chemical bonds to for steam engines, then gasoline inside internal combustion engines and repurposed coal for large centralized electric power plants. Now the 21st century could be partly shaped by closing that carbon-hydrogen loop using molecular systems within biology?
Ironically this future vision of energy is inspired by the past! Coal is ancient biomass- likely ferns. And oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both are made of complex chains of hydrogen and carbon assembled by Mother Nature’s molecular machines of algae and bacteria. As long as chemical bonds drive the economy, we need to figure out a way to keep carbon in the energy loop by binding it with hydrogen, not oxygen. This UK algae challenge is an important step in closing that cycle in the 21st Century.
Algae and bacteria can be used to capture energy from carbon-rich waste streams from coal plants, agricultural farms, food processing facilities, wastewater treatment plants and - yes, catfish farms.
Arizona-based PetroSun Biofuels (Subsidiary of PetroSun) has announced plans to integrate algae systems with catfish farm ponds for commercial algae-to-biofuel operations. PetroSun Biofuels is quickly becoming a biofuel startup with global reach. It already operates an open algae biofuel farm in Texas, has licensed its technology outside of the US, and is working to launch operations in China.
PetroSun BioFuels and Biomass Partners have identified up to 80,000 acres of catfish ponds within the state of Mississippi that hold the potential for commercial algae bioenergy systems. Based on PetroSun's annual potential production rate of 2,000 gallons per acre, the existing 80,000 acres of ponds would produce 160 million gallons of algal oil annually for conversion to biodiesel. The remaining algae biomass (e.g. fatty acids) could be processed into ethanol, animal feed, fertilizer and other biomaterial products.
PetroSun is working to secure land surface rights and existing farm ponds located in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas but has not yet announced dates for planned production facilities.
2008 was a big year in energy and one that we could very well look back upon as the platform to the not so distant future of energy. Much has happened. To help you make sense of it all, we here at The Energy Roadmap have sifted through our bookmarks, Google Notebooks, back of the napkin lists, Twitter searches, interview transcripts, and RSS feeds to come up with the top 10 energy stories that will have an impact on our culture, society, and lives.
Algae bioenergy is based on a powerful idea that is still just off the radar of mainstream conversations on the future of energy. We can 'grow energy' by tapping 'carbon eating' algae that create usable forms of hydrocarbons for fuel or biomaterials.
The idea seems strange and futuristic, but it actually describes our past. We already tap the power of bioenergy everyday. Coal is ancient plant life, and oil is (likely) ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both plants and microbes fuse hydrogen and carbon bonds using the power of sunlight. But algae is a more efficient in that conversion and results in a higher hydrogen to carbon ratio. That means a cleaner burning fuel!
Everytime you turn on the light (via coal power plant) or drive a car you are capturing the energy released from carbon-hydrogen bonds form by ancient biology. Now energy visionaries are looking at how we can tap the same processes today to 'grow energy' without relying on food crops like corn or soy.
This week The Takeaway has been running Power Trip a series of programs on the future of energy. Earlier this week, Host John Hockenberry visited algae biofuels company Bionavitas in Seattle, WA.
It got me thinking — is our salvation really in the hands of these small microbials? Do science fiction writers have it right?
War of the Worlds
An invasion of Martians threaten to obliterate humanity. Humans are forced to run, unable to combat the technologically advanced tripods the Martians are manning. All seems lost until tripods start falling down for unknown reasons. Eventually, all the Martians have died due to a lack of immunities against Earth’s bacteria.
Earth, due to overpopulation and pollution, has seeded Mars with oxygen-producing algae in the hope of being able to eventually move to the planet. Astronauts are sent to the planet to find out why oxygen production has stalled and discover a native bug which feeds on the algae and produces oxygen. Running out of air, the astronauts remove their helmets expecting to die but find oxygen.
The Future of Energy will be based on our ability to elegantly control the interactions of light, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals. And for all our engineering prowress of extracting and blowing up ancient bio-energy reserves (coal/oil), there is still so much to learn about basic energy systems from Mother Nature.
Laying Down Algae Shells for Solar Panels Researchers from Oregon State University and Portland State University have developed a new way to make “dye-sensitized” solar cells using a 'bottom up' biological assembly processes over traditional silicon chemical engineering.
The teams are working with a type of solar cell that generates energy when 'photons bounce around like they were in a pinball machine, striking these dyes and producing electricity.'
Rather than build the solar cells using traditional technqiues, the team is tapping the outer shells of single-celled algae, known as diatoms, to improve the electrical output. (Diatoms are believed to be the ancient bio-source of petroleum.)
The team placed the algae on a transparent conductive glass surface, and then (removed) the living organic material, leaving behind the tiny skeletons of the diatoms to form a template that is integrated with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide to complete the solar cell design.
Biology's Nanostructured Shells & Bouncing Photons? “Conventional thin-film, photo-synthesizing dyes also take photons from sunlight and transfer it to titanium dioxide, creating electricity,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor of chemical engineering “But in this system the photons bounce around more inside the pores of the diatom shell, making it more efficient.”
The research team is still not clear how the process works, but 'the tiny holes in diatom shells appear to increase the interaction between photons and the dye to promote the conversion of light to electricity... potentially with a triple output of electricity.'
According to the team, this is the 'first reported study of using a living organism to controllably fabricate semiconductor TiO2 nanostructures by a bottom-up self-assembly process.' So, chalk up another early win for advanced bio-energy manufacturing strategies!
A research group led by Montana State University Professor Gary Strobel has found a fungus (Gliocladium roseum) inside a Patagonia rainforest that produces hydrocarbon chains similar to diesel fuel or “myco-diesel”.
Why is this important?
Our world is powered by capturing the energy released from carbon-hydrogen chains from wood, coal, oil and natural gas. This chemical energy was formed by ancient biological processes via plants, algae and bacteria. But what if fungi could do the same thing?
If we expect to move beyond an extraction economy that taps ancient bio energy via coal and petroleum, we need to find substitute sources of energy producing systems. Rather than look at energy conversion via plants (e.g. corn), researchers are looking at more ancient forms of life to find the most efficient metabolic systems involved in energy conversion.
When can I put myco-diesel in my vehicle?
There is still a very long way to go before we can develop energy roadmaps and forecasts for fungi derived fuels. For now, smart money is on cellulosic and algae derived biofuels. This is an important discovery, but we have no applied evidence that it could easily scale to produce large amounts of usable forms of liquid fuels at a low cost. But this is an important first step and a significant discovery around the fundamentals of bioenergy!
Could coal emerge as the biggest energy story of 2009? We think so!
Coal is likely to become President elect Barack Obama’s first great energy policy challenge- as evidenced by the coal industry’s ‘Congratulations’ ad on CNN.com
Why coal? Big Story for 2009: Problems with ‘Big Grid’
As prices at the pump drop in response to the global economic slowdown, we can (sadly) anticipate less media and public attention to the long term challenges of oil. Fortunately we have a problem of equal magnitude- an aging, some say failing, electric utility grid run by large enterprises who are already rethinking their changing role in the next century.
There is a short list of big issues for ‘Big Grid’ – building a 21st Century ‘Smart Grid’ around software and storage, integrating utility scale renewables (solar, wind, biomass waste), addressing regulatory challenges of carbon emissions, and working with private sector entrepreneurs who are advancing technologies that could disrupt long-held pricing structures and operating principles of our antiquated grid.
Today, we cannot talk about the future of utility grid energy or global energy and climate issues without confronting the challenges of coal. ‘Clean Coal’ refers to various methods of capturing energy from coal while reducing the amount of pollutants. Critics argue that coal can never been ‘clean’, while supporters of ‘cleaner’ coal argue that we must develop cost effective strategies that can reduce the impact of coal being burned in the US, China and around the world.
While US activists prepare for a battle against the notion of ‘clean coal’, China’s coal industry continues to boom. A recent MITreportestimates that China’s power sector has been expanding at a rate roughly equivalent to three to four new coal-fired, 500 megawatt plants coming on line every week.
The real danger is not just the carbon emissions, but the wrong assumptions and perception that incremental solutions, protests, or stricter carbon regulations can somehow shift China’s current direction. Why worry?
The gap continues to widen between what activists want to happen with the global coal industry, versus the reality of coal’s expanding role as the world’s fastest growing source of energy.
Worse, is the misguided hope that cheap solar (which is coming 2015-2025!) can magically counter the existing growth trend lines for coal. Most of that solar power generation will just go to satisfy new demand, not take away from coal’s market share and prime access to national energy grids. If there is a viable solution for this reality, it must be algae or advanced bioenergy solutions that can scale and eat the emissions from the combustion of coal. We need carbon solutions, not just alternatives to coal.
The People’s Daily Online reports that geologists have confirmed a massive 23 billion ton coal reserve deposit in the country’s Turfan Basin. ‘The coal mine occupies an area of over 300 square kilometers with a thickness of 169.69 meters, and a coal bearing ratio of 29%’. This is the second major reserve confirmed in the last six months.
That’s only the beginning! China does not appear to be limiting its reliance to coal on its own domestic supplies. Last week Reuters reported that China’s largest coal miner Shenhua Energy Co Ltd paid $187.4 million for a coal exploration license in Australia.
There is an echo chamber of cynicism around the topic of corn ethanol. Unless you are a corn farmer or part of the ethanol lobby, evergyone agrees that this is not a sustainable path.
So the world is moving forward. The conversation is now focused on next generation bioenergy solutions that avoid the problems of 'crop' based biofuels.
The US government has placed a ceiling on future growth for corn derived fuels, and now the Obama administration has announced up to $25 million in funding for research and development of technologies and processes to produce biofuels, bioenergy, and high-value biobased products.
The money will fund projects related to: Feedstocks development; Biofuels and biobased products development; and Biofuels development analysis.
What is happening? 'Biology' is coming of age as a driver of industrial and energy applications.
Why 'Bioenergy'has more to do with Bio-Industrialism than Farming
Bioenergy visionaries with algae and bacteria aren't the only players in town trying to corner the market on the 'future of biofuels'. We cannot forget the Chemists.
Biofuels are expanding along two paths- one is based on chemical engineering, the other on biological processes.
Chemistry vs Biology We can create biofuels by applying chemical engineering processes (e.g. ethanol via fermentation, or biodiesel via transesterfication) with high reliability and scale, but usually at a high cost.
Or we can let Mother Nature do the work. Biology taps the power of algae and bacteria that contain special enzymes that reorganize molecules into a format that can be used to make biofuels, or converted into electricity via a fuel cell.
Biology could offer lower cost and turn carbon emissions into a feedstock, but first we must overcome challenges of scaling up volume production, and the unpredictable nature of biomolecular systems.
Wisconsin Focuses on Path of Chemistry For now, chemical conversion is the more immediate opportunity and fits within the current paradigm of processing energy and materials feedstocks. And engineers are working to overcome the challenges to reduce the number of steps, and facilitate reactions at a lower temperature with non-toxic, abundant resources.
Now scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a two-step method to convert cellulose into a biofuel called DMF. Professor Ronald Raines and graduate student Joseph Binder highlight the two step process: First, they convert the cellulose of untreated biomass into the "platform" chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) which is used in 'a variety of valuable commodity chemicals'. Generally HMF is made using processed glucose or fructose rather than raw biomass.
Step Two: Creating a New Biofuel with Gasoline Qualities
Despite the hype, algae is more history than science fiction. In fact it is already the world's dominate source of energy. Petroleum is just chemical energy stored in the form of hydrogen-carbon bonds that were assembled by ancient sea-living microbes (diatoms). So, oil is in essence the result of ancient algae growth!
So instead of extracting reserves of oil, we can 'grow energy' using efficient biochemical pathways of algae (and bacteria) that eat carbon and, then using the power of light, bind it with hydrogen to produce bio-oil that can be used as a source of energy (via engine or fuel cell) or as a feedstock for biomaterials.