Designer algae: the next Biofuel?
n 2006, the dusty town of Anthony Texas had little more going for it than being a New Mexico border town and an alfalfa field. This Dusty Texas Town recently became the home of a new and developing technology and oddly enough, it’s dependent on water. The old saying “Everything is bigger in Texas” doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to the Vertigro alternative fuel laboratory being constructed there. The dry stretch of land in West Texas might seem like the last place to study anything that lives in water, but the effort is based on more than just a new idea.
In 1939 Hans Gaffron, a University of Chicago research scientist, observed that the green algae he was studying, Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii, would occasionally switch from the production of oxygen to the production of Hydrogen. Gaffron was unable to discover why the algae would change to Hydrogen production and the answer would remain elusive for many years. In the late 1990s, University of California at Berkeley Professor Anastasios Melis discovered that if the algae culture medium is deprived of sulfur it will switch from the production of oxygen (normal photosynthesis), to the production of Hydrogen.
Algae Bioreactors are also used at power plants to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; the CO2 can be pumped into a pond, or storage tank, as a feedstock for the algae. Alternatively, the bioreactor can be installed directly on top of a smokestack, a technology pioneered by Massachusetts-based 'Green Fuel Technologies'.
Research on algae as a potential energy source began in the late 1970’s running for almost 20 years until the U.S. Energy Department cut funding in 1996. Even with the lower gasoline prices of the 1970’s, the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory determined that algae would likely not be able to compete when it came to cost per gallon against fossil fuels.
Vertigro, however, is about to begin building a pilot algae oil processing plant behind the Texas research lab, and company officials report discussions with biodiesel producers regarding licensing the "closed-loop" algae production system. While algae grows well in an "open pond", the Vertigro system uses a greenhouse filled with tall, clear plastic bags, suspended end to end in rows, to breed algae.
The bags have a constant supply of carbon dioxide, and are exposed to the sun thereby increasing the algae photosynthesis process. In this enhanced environment, the tiny green organisms can reproduce every 4 hours. An additional benefit of this process is that production is limited to selected strains which are energy rich. In the “Open Pond” method, these less prominent strains are typically crowded out by stronger strains which contain less oil according to Glen Kertz, CEO of Valcent, who developed the system.
The odds would seem to favor algae oil production. At 20,000 bags per square acre, algae yields around 100,000 gallons of algae oil per year. In contrast, one acre of soybeans only produces about 50 gallons of soybean oil a year, while one acre of corn yields about 29 gallons of oil per year. The largest benefit to date is that the Algae farms can be built virtually anywhere, a point hopefully demonstrated by locating a facility in West Texas.
Algae farms could help offset carbon dioxide emissions, which have been linked to global warming. Algae consumes carbon dioxide so farms built next to electricity plants or other industrial polluters could capture a portion of the carbon dioxide emissions prior to their being released into the atmosphere. The algae production line will need some time to grow and mature before investors are willing to devote the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars required to prove the process.