Researchers Experiment With Algae-Based Biofuel

One day, your car could run on algae. Scientists have been saying that for decades. The military and energy companies have already experimented with algae-based biofuel. But it has yet to be brought to the masses…

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Stina Sieg of KJZZ reports that a lot of that research is happening in Arizona.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And while we’re talking cars and sustainability, the national average for a gallon of gas right now is $3.60, which is still a lot cheaper than some alternatives like algae. But maybe not for long. Researchers in Arizona are trying to develop algae-based biofuel that could eventually go in your tank. From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, KJZZ’s Stina Sieg reports from Phoenix.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: Green liquid bubbles from rows of glass tanks in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. The sun is shining bright on the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. And that’s fueling the growth of these super-productive, single-cell organisms. Professor Milton Sommerfeld directs the center, run by Arizona State University. To him, this isn’t pond scum, it’s biofuel that just has not been processed yet. He holds up jars of the finished products in his lab across the street.

MILTON SOMMERFELD: This is like crude petroleum, and here’s an example of where we’ve taken the algae oil and made biodiesel.

SIEG: Its green pigment has been removed, so Sommerfeld says the light yellow liquid looks just like regular diesel, but it burns much cleaner, up to 90 percent cleaner when you factor in the carbon used to grow algae. Sommerfeld explains that algae can be turned into any liquid fuel product on the market with the help of heat, pressure or solvents.

SOMMERFELD: One of the advantages of the algae is that they’re making the fuel and the other products in real time, not geologic time.

SIEG: Meaning you don’t have to wait millions of years before you can extract it, like petroleum or coal. But how to make algae make economic sense? Well, researchers are still working on that. Sommerfeld estimates that a gallon of commercially produced algae oil would cost consumers between $9 and $13, and that’s way too high to make it profitable.

A few miles down the road in Gilbert, Arizona, a company called Heliae makes an array of things from algae, from supplements to beauty aids, but it doesn’t do fuel. CEO Dan Simon explains.

DAN SIMON: In our view, until you can produce algae fuels at $3 per gallon, you’re not really going to have an open market opportunity.

SIEG: And that opportunity might not come along for another five, maybe 10 years, according to Heather Youngs. She is a researcher at UC Berkeley who is not shy about her respect for algae.

HEATHER YOUNGS: Yeah, they’re amazing, amazing creatures with a lot of potential. And I can understand why people are so excited about them.

SIEG: Algae does grow easily in Arizona. Algae ponds need large, flat surfaces and sunshine, which the state has lots of, but all that land is expensive, as are the nutrients needed to help algae thrive. Youngs says UC Berkeley looked at all of these factors when predicting algae’s role in America’s energy future.

YOUNGS: The analysis that we’ve done in our institute, unless there’s something, some significant advance to bring the cost of production down, does not predict a high percentage of algae.

SIEG: So where does that leave scientists at Arizona State University, who are trying to make the production of algae oil more efficient and cheaper? ASU researcher Terri Belisle says that it will take many different sources of alternative energy to eventually replace fossil fuels, and she believes algae will be part of that patchwork.

TERRI BELISLE: The timeline is always the question. Everybody asks, you know, when? When?

SIEG: Right now Belisle can’t answer those questions. No one in the algae world can, yet. For HERE AND NOW, I’m Stina Sieg in Phoenix.

 

Photo caption: Algae can be processed into any liquid fuel product around, like kerosene and diesel. (Stina Sieg/KJZZ)

The University of New Orleans

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