Algae BioDiesel, A Biofuel that Works for Stephen Colbert?

I have been reading up a bit on the potential of Algae BioDiesel. For those of you not familar with Algae and its potential as a biofuel – this Popular Mechanics article has many of the basics. It’s a technology still in its infancy, but provided some of the challenges of refining and consistent production can be worked out, it has some promise compared to other potential Bio-Fuels – including Bio-Diesels from Soy, Switch Grass or Sugar Cane or Corn Ethanol – particularly from an land efficiency standpoint.

Bio-fuels are seen as an potential next step toward renewable transport by many because they could slot nicely into much of the existing petro-infrastructure with less of a leap than electric or hydrogen – from cars design and manufacture, down to fuel distribution. For instance, (for better or worse) ethanol is alread highly integrated into our fuel food chain at this point – being blended with gasoline.

However, there are some significant hurdles for these fuels to actually make a dent in our oil consumption pattern. To date ethanol has been primarily corn-based and generally inefficient to produce from a oil consumption basis e.g., (ethanol’s need for more than a gallon of oil to produce a gallon of ethanol). Bio diesel similarly suffers from the challenges and expense of moving lots of feed stock from where they grow well to where it makes sense to refine those materials and then inject them into the existing diesel distribution chain.

Both approaches also suffer from land-use efficiency challenges – something that was pointed out hilariously on the Colbert report in late April:

…But, folks, leave it to the British to rain on our petrol-parade. A recent article by the Royal Society of Chemistry … blasted ethanol, claiming that the land “equivalent to 30 football pitches [is] needed for one biofuel[ed] flight [from London] to New York”. Let me say that in English: the fuel for one transatlantic flight would requre a year’s worth of corn from thirty soccer fields. Now the Royal Society calls this an ” … extremely inefficient process …”; it is very efficient. You get to fly across the Atlantic AND destroy soccer at the same time!

Algae could provide a solution to both of those problems. First off, despite the finicky nature of growing algae for oil (ironic for anyone who has had their pond choked with the stuff) algae can be grown in places that other crops can’t because it grows in solution – so places with lots of sun buy lousy soil – like a desert – are potential algae farms. Second, Algae is much more efficient than other feed stocks – potentially yielding 2-3 times the amount of oil per pound than other plants, and much faster growing – yielding many more pounds per acre per month of stock than other plants.

In addition to the company mentioned in that PM article, there are a number of other start-up firms looking at different ways to harness the potential of algae.

Even if algae overcomes its own technological challenges. There are still hurdles to overcome before its widespread usage could begin to make a difference in oil consumption.

It will need to be integrated with a petro-dominated distribution scheme – one that’s not likely to be excited about making changes to its way of doing things. Algae will likely still need to be mixed with petro-diesel to provide the correct level of lubrication and fuel viscosity be suitable for long term use in motors.

Also, at least here in the U.S., manufacturers will need to bring more bio-diesel models to market. The U.S. has had a fraction of the diesel options that Europeans have. This is primarily due to the tax policies in Europe that encourage diesels over gasoline IC motors. More recently, strict California particulate matter emmissions laws have clamped down on potential demand for diesels because until last year even newer diesel technologies couldn’t pass those standards – making them unsalable for nearly 1/5th of the potential market in the U.S.

In the end, I see bio-fuels, if they work, either as an interim step to other technologies – like hydrogen. Or as a potential long term solution for range extension in electric hybrid vehicles.

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