Algae fuel or algal biofuel is an alternative to liquid fossil fuels that uses algae as its source of energy-rich oils. Several companies and government agencies are funding efforts to reduce capital and operating costs and make algae fuel production commercially viable. Like fossil fuel, algae fuel releases CO2 when burnt, but unlike fossil fuel, algae fuel and other biofuels only release CO2 recently removed from the atmosphere via photosynthesis as the algae or plant grew. The energy crisis and the world food crisis have ignited interest in algaculture (farming algae) for making biodiesel and other biofuels using land unsuitable for agriculture. Among algal fuels' attractive characteristics are that they can be grown with minimal impact on fresh water resources, can be produced using saline and wastewater, have a high flash point, and are biodegradable and relatively harmless to the environment if spilled. Algae cost more per unit mass than other second-generation biofuel crops due to high capital and operating costs, but are claimed to yield between 10 and 100 times more fuel per unit area. The United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (39,000 km2), which is only 0.42% of the U.S. map, or about half of the land area of Maine. This is less than 1⁄7 the area of corn harvested in the United States in 2000.
According to the head of the Algal Biomass Organization, algae fuel can reach price parity with oil in 2018 if granted production tax credits. However, in 2013, Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson said that after committing to spend up to $600 million over 10 years on development in a joint venture with J. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics in 2009, Exxon pulled back after four years (and $100 million) when it realized that algae fuel is "probably further" than 25 years away from commercial viability. On the other hand, Solazyme and Sapphire Energy already began commercial sales of algal biofuel in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and Algenol hopes to produce commercially in 2014.
- Main article: Algal nutrient solutions
Nutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), are important for plant growth and are essential parts of fertilizer. SiO2 and Fe, as well as several trace elements, may also be considered important marine nutrients as the lack of one can limit the growth of, or productivity in, an area.
Bubbling CO2 through algal cultivation systems can greatly increase productivity and yield (up to a saturation point). Typically, about 1.8 tonnes of CO
2 will be utilised per tonne of algal biomass (dry) produced, though this varies with algae species. The Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire, UK – home to The Famous Grouse Whisky – percolate CO
2 made during the whisky distillation through a microalgae bioreactor. Each tonne of microalgae absorbs two tonnes of CO
2. Scottish Bioenergy, who run the project, sell the microalgae as high value, protein-rich food for fisheries. In the future, they will use the algae residues to produce renewable energy through anaerobic digestion.
Nitrogen is a valuable substrate that can be utilized in algal growth. Various sources of nitrogen can be used as a nutrient for algae, with varying capacities. Nitrate was found to be the preferred source of nitrogen, in regards to amount of biomass grown. Urea is a readily available source that shows comparable results, making it an economical substitute for nitrogen source in large scale culturing of algae. Despite the clear increase in growth in comparison to a N-less medium, it has been shown that alterations in nitrogen levels affect lipid content within the algal cells. In one study nitrogen deprivation for 72 hours caused the total fatty acid content (on a per cell basis) to increase by 2.4-fold. 65% of the total fatty acids were esterified to triacylglycerides in oil bodies, when compared to the initial culture, indicating that the algal cells utilized de novo synthesis of fatty acids. It is vital for the lipid content in algal cells to be of high enough quantity, while maintaining adequate cell division times, so parameters that can maximize both are under investigation.
- Main article: Wastewater treatment facility
A possible nutrient source is waste water from the treatment of sewage, agricultural, or flood plain run-off, all currently major pollutants and health risks. However, this waste water cannot feed algae directly and must first be processed by bacteria, through anaerobic digestion. If waste water is not processed before it reaches the algae, it will contaminate the algae in the reactor, and at the very least, kill much of the desired algae strain. In biogas facilities, organic waste is often converted to a mixture of carbon dioxide, methane, and organic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer that comes out of the digester is liquid, and nearly suitable for algae growth, but it must first be cleaned and sterilized.
The utilization of wastewater and ocean water instead of freshwater is strongly advocated due to the continuing depletion of freshwater resources. However, heavy metals, trace metals, and other contaminants in wastewater can decrease the ability of cells to produce lipids biosynthetically and also impact various other workings in the machinery of cells. The same is true for ocean water, but the contaminants are found in different concentrations. Thus, agricultural-grade fertilizer is the preferred source of nutrients, but heavy metals are again a problem, especially for strains of algae that are susceptible to these metals. In open pond systems the use of strains of algae that can deal with high concentrations of heavy metals could prevent other organisms from infesting these systems. In some instances it has even been shown that strains of algae can remove over 90% of Ni and Zn from industrial wastewater in relatively short periods of time.
In comparison with terrestrial-based biofuel crops such as corn or soybeans, microalgal production results in a much less significant land footprint due to the higher oil productivity from the microalgae than all other oil crops. Algae can also be grown on marginal lands useless for ordinary crops and with low conservation value, and can use water from salt aquifers that is not useful for agriculture or drinking., Algae can also grow on the surface of the ocean in bags or floating screens. Thus microalgae could provide a source of clean energy with little impact on the provisioning of adequate food and water or the conservation of biodiversity. Algae cultivation also requires no external subsidies of insecticides or herbicides, removing any risk of generating associated pesticide waste streams. In addition, algal biofuels are much less toxic, and degrade far more readily than petroleum based fuels. However, due to the flammable nature of any combustible fuel, there is potential for some environmental hazards if ignited or spilled, as may occur in a train derailment or a pipeline leak. This hazard is reduced compared to fossil fuels, due to the ability for algal biofuels to be produced in a much more localized manner, and due to the lower toxicity overall, but the hazard is still there nonetheless. Therefore, algal biofuels should be treated in a similar manner to petroleum fuels in transportation and use, with sufficient safety measures in place at all times.
Studies have determined that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, have the capability of reducing CO
2 emissions by up to 80%. An algae-based system could capture approximately 80% of the CO
2 emitted from a power plant when sunlight is available. Although this CO
2 will later be released into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned, this CO
2 would have entered the atmosphere regardless. The possibility of reducing total CO
2 emissions therefore lies in the prevention of the release of CO
2 from fossil fuels. Furthermore, compared to fuels like diesel and petroleum, and even compared to other sources of biofuels, the production and combustion of algal biofuel does not produce any sulfur oxides or nitrous oxides, and produces a reduced amount of carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons, and reduced emission of other harmful pollutants. Since terrestrial plant sources of biofuel production simply do not have the production capacity to meet current energy requirements, microalgae may be one of the only options to approach complete replacement of fossil fuels.
Microalgae production also includes the ability to use saline waste or waste CO
2 streams as an energy source. This opens a new strategy to produce biofuel in conjunction with waste water treatment, while being able to produce clean water as a byproduct. When used in a microalgal bioreactor, harvested microalgae will capture significant quantities of organic compounds as well as heavy metal contaminants absorbed from wastewater streams that would otherwise be directly discharged into surface and ground-water. Moreover, this process also allows the recovery of phosphorus from waste, which is an essential but scarce element in nature – the reserves of which are estimated to have depleted in the last 50 years. Another possibility is the use of algae production systems to clean up non-point source pollution, in a system known as an algal turf scrubber (ATS). This has been demonstrated to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in rivers and other large bodies of water affected by eutrophication, and systems are being built that will be capable of processing up to 110 million liters of H2O per day. ATS can also be used for treating point source pollution, such as the waste water mentioned above, or in treating livestock effluent.
Nearly all research in algal biofuels has focused on culturing single species, or monocultures, of microalgae. However, ecological theory and empirical studies have demonstrated that plant and algae polycultures, i.e. groups of multiple species, tend to produce larger yields than monocultures. Experiments have also shown that more diverse aquatic microbial communities tend to be more stable through time than less diverse communities. Recent studies found that polycultures of microalgae produced significantly higher lipid yields than monocultures. Polycultures also tend to be more resistant to pest and disease outbreaks, as well as invasion by other plants or algae. Thus culturing microalgae in polyculture may not only increase yields and stability of yields of biofuel, but also reduce the environmental impact of an algal biofuel industry.
- ABE fermentation
- Biochemical engineering
- Biological hydrogen production (Algae)
- Butanol fuel
- Carbon neutrality
- Culture Fuels
- International Renewable Energy Alliance
- List of algal fuel producers
- Ocean thermal energy conversion
- Nannochloropsis and biofuel
- Thermal depolymerization
- Residual Sodium Carbonate Index
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