Producing biodiesel from algae has been touted by many as the solution for our liquid fuels problem. The advantage being that the land requirement for growing the biodiesel is small and our requirements could be easily met by using only a small part of our deserts. A new company has announced that they were going to pursue this technology.
PetroSun Drilling Inc. (PSUD.PK), formed a wholly owned subsidiary, Algae BioFuels Inc., which will be engaged in the research and development of algae cultivation as an energy source in the production of biodiesel. The R&D and production facilities for Algae BioFuels will be based in Arizona and Australia.
Independent studies have demonstrated that algae is capable of producing 30 times more oil per acre than the current crops now utilized for the production of biofuels. Algae biofuel contains no sulfur, is non-toxic and highly biodegradable. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content, in excess of 50%, and extremely rapid growth rates.
The Office of Fuels Development, a division of the Department of Energy, funded a program from 1978 through 1996 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory known as the "Aquatic Species Program." The focus of this program was to investigate high-oil algae that could be grown specifically for the purpose of wide-scale biodiesel production.
The research by DOE referenced above is available here. A few of paragraphs from the executive summary indicate what they foresaw as the prospects:
Over the course of the program, efforts were made to establish the feasibility of large-scale algae production in open ponds. In studies conducted in California, Hawaii and New Mexico, the ASP proved the concept of long term, reliable production of algae. California and Hawaii served as early test bed sites. Based on results from six years of tests run in parallel in California and Hawaii, 1,000 m2 pond systems were built and tested in Roswell, New Mexico. The Roswell, New Mexico tests proved that outdoor ponds could be run with extremely high efficiency of CO2 utilization. Careful control of pH and other physical conditions for introducing into the ponds allowed greater than 90% utilization of injected CO2. The Roswell test site successfully completed a full year of operation with reasonable control of the algal species grown. Single day productivities reported over the course of one year were as high as 50 grams of algae per square meter per day, a long-term target for the program. Attempts to achieve consistently high productivities were hampered by low temperature conditions encountered at the site. The desert conditions of New Mexico provided ample sunlight, but temperatures regularly reached low levels (especially at night). If such locations are to be used in the future, some form of temperature control with enclosure of the ponds may well be required.
... A major conclusion from these analyses is that there is little prospect for any alternatives to the open pond designs, given the low cost requirements associated with fuel production. The factors that most influence cost are biological, and not engineering-related. These analyses point to the need for highly productive organisms capable of near-theoretical levels of conversion of sunlight to biomass. Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs.
The ASP regularly revisited the question of available resources for producing biodiesel from microalgae. ... Such resource assessments require a combined evaluation of appropriate climate, land and resource availability. These analyses indicate that significant potential land, water and CO2 resources exist to support this technology. Algal biodiesel could easily supply several “quads” of biodiesel—substantially more than existing oilseed crops could provide. Microalgae systems use far less water than traditional oilseed crops. Land is hardly a limitation. Two hundred thousand hectares (less than 0.1% of climatically suitable land areas in the U.S.) could produce one quad of fuel (our vehicles use ~20 quads of fuel). Thus, though the technology faces many R&D hurdles before it can be practicable, it is clear that resource limitations are not an argument against the technology.
The price of biodiesel is now at the point where a process may be able to be developed, but many hurdles still remain. Investors have to be convinced that the price of oil will remain high enough to justify the development. A hopeful sign is that more productive forms of algae have been found.
Greenfuels and Greenshift Industrial Design Corporation are developing algae production systems that grow the algae in a series of small reactors located near a power plant. They both have relatively small demonstration systems in operation. These systems do not require a desert climate to operate, maintaining their temperature using the heat contained in the smokestack effluent. The questions on these processes are: Is their enough land available near a powerplant, is the cost of the reactor vessels low enough and can the algae be harvested from the reactors reliably? The developers, of course, believe so. Michael Briggs of the University of New Hampshire has long advocated algae for production of biodiesel. He has stated that going with enclosed photobioreactors can immediately solve the bulk of the problems encountered by prior research. He also believes that if all vehicles were gradually converted to high efficiency diesels, that this would provide a relatively straightforward transition to biodiesel.
PetroSun Announces Formation of Algae BioFuels; Subsidiary to Develop Algae-Based Biodiesel, PetroSun press release, June 22, 2006