Last week, the oil company Royal Dutch Shell announced plans to build an algae biodiesel plant in Hawaii. The project will progress in stages: first, the company will build a small research plant, with hopes to build a full-scale commercial plant within two years. Algae is an incredibly tantalizing yet frustrating potential fuel source, as PopSci's Elizabeth Svoboda found out earlier this year when writing the tale of an algae biodiesel startup in Colorado. The microbes can create enormous amounts of oil from very little in the way of nutrients and land, but extracting the oil and converting it to biodiesel remains extremely difficult.
Shell is partnering with Hawaii-based HR Biopetroleum on their project, and hopes to produce 8.5 million barrels of biodiesel a year at the commercial plant.—Michael Moyer
(Image Credit: Dan Bihn)
Cool. I read that story. It was very interesting. I actually feel that it is possible, but it will probably be very costly. Once the oil is burned, what kind of exhaust are we talking about since it is supposed to help the environment. Will biodiesel cost three dollars a gallon or more? I don't know much about this kind of stuff. Animals are more my line.
Posted by: mike D. | December 20, 2007 at 01:46 PM
All of a sudden it seems that every bio-scam artist in country is hawking algae oil. As someone who has worked in this field and producing algae for numerous purposes for the last 35 years = I find it very negative when so many groups flat our lie about the potential of algae for producing bio-diesel. You never read an article where the costs of producing an algae source fuel are discussed. Guess why? Because its not close to being competitive with basic petroleum fuel costs as yet. If you do find a modicum of economic discussion on the subject - they immediately set the production cost of algae oil at $100/barrel. They forget that we have been through this situation at least twice in the last 40 years. High petroleum cost create promising economics for alternative fuels. Investors come rolling into alternative energy development. Then oil producers drop oil back to the cost of producing it (say $20/barrel equivalents and then all the alternative energy companies go belly up. There is not reason to believe this won't happen this time as well.
The articles you read either focus on novel methods of producing algae - either enhanced bio-reactor schemes or genetically engineered high lipid producing algae. In truth neither the technical hurdles or the economic hurdles are being limited by production actual production costs. Making a fuel from algae consists of a number of basic, but expensive (and energy intensive) production/manufacturing steps:
- Algae production - In spite of what you may read by algae oil startup companies - algae production requires fertilizers and pest control agents - different but conceptually and economically not unlike terrestrial crops. Like other plants they produce oxygen and consume CO2, but only when exposed to light. At night they consume oxygen and produce massive amounts of CO2. They do fix some carbon in the process, but not at rates claimed by so many hucksters.
- Separating the algae from its culture water.
- Rupturing the algal cell to release its contents (and lipids).
- Separating or extracting the lipids from algal bio-mass.
- Filtering the lipid extraction to clean them of cellular debris and any additional water.
- Chemically stabilizing the resulting purified lipid extraction so it can be stored as a practical fuel fuel.
This is not an inexpensive process. While algae production costs may be improved somewhat through better technology, the remaining processing costs are going to be very difficult to lower. Algae does have potential as a bio-fuel producer, but it is not the energy crisis savior that many are claiming and it does have significant environmental impacts that have to be dealt with. Unless the government controls petroleum prices so they can be guaranteed not to fall below set minimums - all alternative fuels are going to be an economic crap shoot.
Posted by: Durwood M. Dugger | December 20, 2007 at 02:34 PM
Durwood, this is only a startup, relax. I think you are too optimistic about the ability of OPEC to control prices. The capacity is no longer out there to drop the price of fuel back to the $20 range, not without severe economic consequences. Besides, demand is rapidly approaching the range where it will outstrip supply, a lot of asian tigers would love to have oil reserves, this is why China buys dollars. Anyway, I'm curious if lipid production is really what we should be going with bio-fuel, there are many other easily extractable chemical feedstocks that could be produced besides long chain hydrocarbons.
Posted by: Lance Pickens | December 20, 2007 at 04:30 PM
hello i think that this idea is awsome but also kinda Stupid at the same time
Posted by: Tomitonm | December 20, 2007 at 06:06 PM
The reason i think it is awsome is because today We live in a scociety where Global Warming can kill us at any time. But i think it is Stupid Because now people are trying to do something to save our freakin skins so that we all dont die and go to heaven or hell already. but since they are acting now it hase become a compotition between companies to see who can make biodiesel fuel first. and then watch people mess up and make a fuel that can end up killing us before global warming does.
Posted by: Tomitonm | December 20, 2007 at 06:14 PM
I think that because the issue of Global Warming is a very real concern with most people, they will be less likely to drop an alternative as potentially promising as this one due to falling petrol prices. The gas scare in the 70's did boost alternative energy research temporarily and most did belly up after prices went back down, but nothing unifies people under a common goal like mutual destruction. More of an undercutting threat is from other alternative fuel source lobbies in Washington than the price of oil. Many are well established and unfortunately that is how change in America is accomplished.
Posted by: Juice | December 21, 2007 at 09:05 AM
Hey...how come no one mention this potential bio-fuel: HEMP?? this is win-win for everyone including farmers?? no pesticide or fertilizer needed! Great for soil erosion control,...can have two growing seasons in bible belt.
Posted by: mrgintz | December 21, 2007 at 10:02 AM
This is a very promising technology. Green Star Products (GSPI.pk) is another company with Patented processes that is converting and building plants too.
Posted by: Don Bostrom | December 21, 2007 at 08:02 PM
Hemp is great for energy !
Fiber for clothing, oil AND hemp flour from hemp seed, (41% protein !) and finally you can burn the leftovers or use them for cellulosic ethanol.
It's a great crop, and the dimwits that oppose it will die out eventually so American farmers can raise this valuable crop.
BTW, Durwood, you left out the most interesting aspect of algae culture.
To fertilize the algae, feed them flue gas from a coal plant !
They LOVE the CO2. And they even seem to thrive on the pollutants.
So it's not only a matter of algae farming, it's ALSO pollution remediation and carbon sequestration.
With a strategy to pump the CO2 underground by night, and feed it to algae by day, just one acre of algae could yield 250 TIMES as much oil as growing soybeans could. The upper limits of this process could be amazing.
As far as your concerns with "pest control", generally you use saltwater algae inland, so native freshwater algae can't infect the system.
That lets you use open saltwater ponds, if you want, and I imagine you could just adapt industrial wastewater treatment equipment to stir the algae and skim off the harvest.
Stabilizing the oil is no big deal, you just make it into biodiesel.
With all respect, your comments and use of terms like "bio-scam" remind me of a conversation I had a while back with a retired executive from Exxon.
I just happened to mention the latest Popular Science article "Solar Power Tower" about concentrating solar power, and he went off !
He insisted that Exxon had spent $$$$$$$ investigating solar energy, and had determined there was NO way to make a commercial profit from it.
Well, I gently suggested that there'd been advancements since he had retired.
That approach didn't work. He was vehemently against solar power.
I told him about concentrating solar, and he insisted it could NEVER make a profit.
Well, this summer a SECOND concentrating solar farm was built, this one outside Las Vegas. The first, in California, has been producing 2% of California's electricity needs for twenty years now.
And there's more such plants in the works.
This week, the company NanoSolar released their thin-film, low cost solar panels for sale, most of the first run which are already bought by Germany.
So, the Exxon exec wasn't just wrong, he was VERY wrong. There IS profit to be made in Solar, and there will be profit made in Algae-Diesel.
Especially since there's no reason to believe petroleum prices will ever go back to $20 a barrel !
Posted by: William Carr | December 21, 2007 at 08:18 PM
Why don't we just ask the Brazilian government what they are doing about their energy needs. While we bicker back and forth, they (Brazil) are doing something about it.
Posted by: PartyMarty2000 | December 21, 2007 at 10:08 PM
Exxon and other lobbist in D.C. that own the Republican Party will do any thing (including war)to maintain their control of the energy production in this country. Until the consuming public realizes the real responsible parties for our mess we will continue to get the same government and coverups. I realize that there is no "freelunch" with our consumption, but as I see the situation the issue is about who controls energy not about how much energy we consume. Pollution is a problem will all aspects of energy consumption, fossil fuels add carbon from the earth to the atmosphere. Biofuels will remove carbon from the atmosphere albeit would return to the atmosphere when consumed (burned). Conservation is the best way to reduce our atmosphere problem.
Posted by: R. D. Davis | December 22, 2007 at 10:48 AM
Let's cheer first !
Second, we have to cool down our heads and define a right overall objective : oil production or carbon sequestration ? or both ?
I am quite suspicious that we could achieve both.
Posted by: Kevin | December 30, 2007 at 02:42 AM
Here in Holland we are very proud that our multinational company Shell is in the frontline of searching to the 'new' oil.
Take a look at my site and learn How to make Biodiesel at home.
Posted by: Biodiesel-Expansion | January 19, 2008 at 04:04 PM
Algae Biodiesels are here to stay. We invite you to attend Algae Biofuel Summit 2008 to get latest in this sector. For more info visit our site:www.astaxanthin.in
Posted by: Tripti | March 17, 2008 at 01:40 AM
CO2 induced global warming is the real scam. It does produce warming but exponetially less and less as concentrations go up. Would you believe the atmosphere once had almost 5000 ppm co2 compared to the paltry >400 we have now. Yes it was warmer when we had 5000 but the point is plug in the 5000ppm into the computer models and just look at the crazy projections they will print out.
We need to persue alternatives not for CO2 reasons butinstead to cut everyones energy cost and get the money out of the hands of the terrorist supporting countries.
Posted by: omegaman66 | April 05, 2008 at 05:35 PM
Seems like your company and PetroSun who is building their algae plant in Texas could team up and begin answering the question if algae can be a new feedstock for the troubled biodiesel industry. Men who are looking more for the common good than the almighty profit is what is needed. As of right now it looks like the Dot.com men are running the show in the US.
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Posted by: Garko Novis | May 17, 2008 at 11:54 AM
I am managing director of a company called ‘Mehr Pakhsh.
We are planning to produce Bio diesel , using alga oil. Nice to know that until now there has been no one working on alga production in an industrial way and oil extraction of that in IRAN.
I have visited your web site and have some questions
1- if you have any interest to have a representative in IRAN?
2- if yes, under which situation?
It will be great if you will answer as soon as possible.
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Posted by: Petroleum Chemicals | October 25, 2010 at 07:27 AM
Some varieties of algae are as much as 50 percent oil, and that oil can be converted into biodiesel or jet fuel. The biggest challenge is slashing the cost of production, which by one Defense Department estimate is running more than $20 a gallon. Scientist are working to economically extract oil for Algae.
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