One of the world’s smallest organisms could make petroleum obsolete

[Global] Algae probably is one of the last things you would associate with race cars, but the eukaryotic organisms soon will be powering the world’s first all-electric Grand Prix. A racing organization called Formula E recently signed a deal with UK start-up Aquafuel to supply generators powered by glycerine, a byproduct of biodiesel that also can be produced from salt-water algae.

The fuel is biodegradable, non-toxic and can be used in modified diesel generators to produce power. The compound comes from algae and has zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. When the fuel burns, there is no smoke, smell, or even sound.

The technology still is in its early stages, which means the Formula E generators will have to be moved around the world to the nine cities hosting races. The season begins in Beijing on September 13, then moves to Miami, Buenos Aires, Monte Carlo and Berlin, before it concludes in London’s Battersea Park on June 27, 2015.

Besides displaying the evolution of biofuels, Formula E hopes to showcase electric cars to new urban audiences. Research by consultancy EY suggests the effort will help drive 77 million additional electric vehicle sales over the next 25 years.

While many associate biofuel with bioethanol produced from corn, algae is a popular option for biofuels because it does not compete with feedstocks grown on agricultural land. Algae also happens to be one of the world’s fastest-growing organisms. However, using algae for biofuels has proved difficult to scale due to the fact that it takes too long to accumulate sufficient biomass, which leads to high costs.

This hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs from innovating to make algae a more viable biofuel source. A research team at AlgaStar Inc, a Florida-based algae cultivation company, recently reported that it has developed an algae production and biostimulation system that yields a 300 percent increase in algae growth rate over normal conditions. The process integrates two types of electromagnetic energy — a millitesla generator and a millimeter microwave generator — which radiate spontaneous growth energy into large volumes of algae biomass.

The company says that even a 20 percent increase in growth rate could give some algae growers a 30 percent increase in revenue. In other words, this is a major step forward in making algae-derived biofuels mainstream.

Algae also might be able to solve more than just our energy problems. A Nevada-based firm called Algae Systems recently announced it has developed a way to make algae-based biofuel profitable by transforming raw sewage into fuel and clean drinking water. The company’s pilot plant in Alabama can profitably produces diesel fuel from algae by simultaneously making clean water from municipal sewage, utilizing the carbon-heavy residue as fertilizer and generating valuable credits for advanced biofuels. Using a “hydrothermal liquefaction” system, algae and other solids in the sewage are heated to more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit, at 3,000 pounds per square inch, creating a liquid that resembles crude oil from a well. Scientists then add hydrogen to produce diesel fuel.

Besides producing clean energy and drinking water (which could help with California’s epic drought), the system also could dispose of a variety of unwanted or hazardous materials, and destroy pathogens in sewage. Even better; it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than is added when the fuel is burned.

Once these technologies mature, algae could be the answer to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) prayers for making the Renewable Fuel Standard viable. Existing corn-based biofuels are often more energy-intensive (when considering the net carbon impact) than producing regular unleaded gasoline and have proven difficult to scale up. This is why last year the EPA backed away from its previously mandated targets for U.S. biofuel production by relaxing the proposed levels of ethanol use outlined in its Renewable Fuel Standard, to address the “E10 blend wall.” The proposal set ethanol use at 15.21 billion gallons — just under 10 percent of motor-fuel consumption and 16 percent lower than targets established by Congress in 2007.

Given growing concerns over carbon pollution, there has been no shortage of debate over how to move towards a cleaner energy future. Some say it’s solar; others that its wind; but sometimes the solution is growing right in your untended swimming pool.


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