Technology is advancing in all fields of energy. Solar, wind, fossil fuels all are being overhauled to make them more efficient and feasible. It is no different for bio fuels either. The biggest recent development in the field of bio fuels has been the discovery of algae fuels.
Due to increase in oil prices and competing demands between other bio fuels and food, algae fuels have become so popular today that many private organisations and governments are investing a lot to make production of algae fuels commercially viable. Algae fuels have become the most researched bio fuel today as they promise a lot for making our future sustainable.
What is algae fuel?
Algae fuels are derived from commercially grown algae. Algae produce lipids (or oil) is collected and later processed to produce various bio fuels like bio ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol and jet fuel amongst others. Like other sources of bio fuels like soy, rapeseed, jatropha and palm, algae are also cultivated as crops and later harvested.
A peek at the algae biofuels production process.
Image Source: Solix Biofuels
Different types of algae fuel and uses
Algae is cultivated to produce various bio fuels. Algae can be used to produce various bio fuels by using various techniques. Algae can be used to produce bio diesel efficiently. Algal bio diesel is considered to be the ideal replacement for conventional diesel. Apart from bio diesel, algae can also be used to produce bio ethanol and butanol to run petrol engines. Vehicles in U.S.A and Brazil and already running with fuels consisting of 85% ethanol and efficient technology is being developed to make pure ethanol motor fuel. Algae has already been tested successfully to produce jet fuel by many prominent Commercial Air Carriers like Lufthansa and Virgin Airlines. The United States Military has started investing heavily on algae based jet fuel to power their sophisticated fighter planes. The main reason for so much research being conducted in algae based jet fuel is due to the never-ending increases in oil prices which affect the aviation industry and the Air Force severely. Another simple usage of algae is to produce biogas through anaerobic digestion by simple decompositions caused by anaerobic microbes in the digestion chamber. The applications of algae fuels cover almost all our energy needs right from gas to light our stove, to powering the engines of rockets.
Advantages of algae fuels
Algae are by far the most efficient feedstock to produce bio fuels like bio ethanol and bio diesel, as lesser area of algae needs to be grown as compared to the commonly used corn or jatropha, to produce same amount of fuel. Algae can produce easily over 10 times fuel as compared to the conventional crops per unit area.
Another major advantage of algae being used as a feedstock for bio fuel is that algae can grow on any land surface and they do not necessarily need arable land, unlike conventional crops, to grow. This helps in solving both the food and fuel needs of the world and hence, helps to end the food versus fuel debate. Apart from being more space efficient, algae is also water efficient as it had very low water consumption and hence can grow in dry areas too where farming is not feasible. Algaculture (growing of algae, similar to agriculture) is extremely environment friendly as compared to agriculture, it is more environment friendly when it comes to land and air pollution.
Today agriculture has become a highly industrial process with heavy usage of insecticides, pesticides and harmful fertilizers. Algae don’t need fertilizers or other chemicals to grow efficiently and hence reduces the pressure on the deteriorating fertility of the soil.
Algae also consume large amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when they grow and hence helps to reduce our carbon footprint.
Apart from these preliminary advantages there are many advantages for algal fuels when it comes to production and transportation stage too. For example, algal biodiesel is decarbonized liquid fuel which allows it to have an easy transition into the existing infrastructure of filling stations and pipelines.
If it’s so good then why hasn’t it made a big impact yet?
The answer to that question is the same as the case with many other new future technologies being developed – cost of implementation. Currently all the companies that are working in the field of algae fuels are doing it solely on the research and haven’t yet commercialized it on a large scale.
Algaculture also needs initial and running investments similar to agriculture. Some of these include construction of algae ponds, culturing the algae species, providing sufficient energy for them to grow productively, isolating the oil and converting it to useful fuel.
All these processes haven’t been perfected yet and hence cost a lot due to which many bigwigs of the oil industry who previously had a keen eye on algae fuels have started reducing their investments in this field. One major example of this is the oil major, Shell which exited its shareholding from Cellana, a JV in the field of algae fuels. A major problem that occurs during algaculture is finding the source to feed the huge amount of carbon dioxide that the algae need to grow efficiently. The atmospheric carbon dioxide is not sufficient for commercial growth of algae and hence other sources of continuous carbon dioxide are needed like chemical methods or collection of CO2 produced in coal-fired power plants.
Cultivating algae for commercial purpose?
The simplest method for algaculture is the open pond system. An example of this is the raceway pond where a horse-shoe shaped pond, lined with plastic or cement, is used to grow algae. Paddlewheels rotate to keep algae suspended and ponds are made deep enough for sufficient sunlight. Nutrients and water are pumped from outside. This process though is not considered feasible for commercial fuel purposes.
Open pond algae farm
The most famous method for algaculture for commercial bio fuel are photobioreactors. Photobioreactors are usually borosilicate glass or plastic tubes where algae are grown with exposure to sunlight. These are tougher to be used and more expensive than open pond system but has more control, efficiency and productivity.
An experimental Photobioreactor
Finally, it can be concluded that though algae fuel is still in its infancy, it will be a major driver for the future economies of our race. This is proven from the fact that its getting a big thumbs up from many big influential organisations and influential personalities, recent ones being U.S. Navy which sailed over 1,000 miles on algae fuel, and president Barrack Obama stating that 17 percent of oil U.S. imports for transportation can be replaced by homegrown algae fuels.