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Renewable Energy – Algae Based Bio-Fuel
Submitted by A. Kranthikumar
Abstract Today sustainability is the buzz word in this corporate world. But what exactly is sustainability? Sustainability means long term maintainability in respect to environment, economic and social dimensions. What is sustainable environment? Sustainable environment means to meet our energy needs in a way that won‟t make the future generations suffer for their energy needs. So renewable energy sources are the way by which we can attain the sustainability in environment. There are many renewable energy resources available like energy generated by solar, wind, water, bio mass etc. And, there are innovations going on every day in fields of renewable energy resources. This resulted in the evolution of these first generation, second generation and third generation fuels. In this paper we will discuss about a new technology in the third generation fuels, Algae based Bio fuel.
Energy is the most pressing need in today's world. Specifically energy through the fuels is making scientists to think for the alternatives as the available fuels are depleting at a faster rate. This made them to think about the renewable energy resources. In the recent past the interest for algae fuels has accelerated significantly, contrary to this, the
research started three decades old. There are many other organisms and also crops like soya, corn are available for producing fuel. But why scientists are interested in algae in producing the fuel? Currently, biofuel from corn, soy, and palm competes with food, uses large inputs of water, ammonia, petroleum, and land. As the demand for food is going up and forests that supply oxygen get destroyed. But you can see algae growing everywhere in and our places like in showers, swimming pool, waste water areas. There are around 30,000 variety of species on this earth. There are different kind of Algae that include seaweed and pond scum. The challenge here is to find the species that are useful to us. Scientists are researching on all the algae to find out the ideal form of algae that produces fuel by using the waste and CO2 available in the environment. The idea is very simple: cultivate algae, separate lipids from water, then refine the fatty lipids into biofuel. Producing low cost and high volume bio fuels is anything but simple. Techniques for Algae Farming Algae Farm – Open Ponds
The natural way of cultivating the algae is done using the Open ponds. The open Pond technology is preferred in the current settings because of its low cost. The Open Pond technology was invented long back in 1940's but there are many developments that are made on the basic concept and reengineered the structure of the Open Pond. The designs are of different forms varying from circular ponds to paddle wheel driven oval raceways. The main advantages of the Open Pond system are: Simple to design Cheap Maintenance is relatively easy Operating cost is less Cost efficient
In spite of the cheap and simple design there are certain disadvantages that are preventing this technology for being superior Risk of high contamination Maintaining the climate or temperature, pH content in the water is difficult as it is exposed to the environment Evaporation rate can be high based on the area of cultivation Only the top layer of pond has the high light penetration which is used by algae for the photosynthesis The biomass yield obtained from any cultivation system is typically given in grams per surface area (m2) or volume (m3) per day. Presently the optimistic number for open pond systems are around 2530 g/m2/day. Algae Closed Systems -Photobioreactors (PBR’s) Closed systems are generally referred as photo bioreactors (PBR‟s) and they can be indoors or outdoors. Most often these photo bioreactors are placed inside greenhouses to reduce the cost of lighting. The advantage of using these photo bioreactors is the increased surface area for a certain culture volume. With the increase in the exposure of light typically results in the yield of higher biomass. There are many developments coming up in the design of the photo bioreactors in the last two years to increase the light exposure per volume. Some of the most commonly used models pf PBR's range from tabular columns or movable panels to flexible bags. Apart from these there are some more futuristic designs like biodomes and floating bags on ocean waters.
Currently the Biomass numbers for closed systems (PBR's) are around 50 g/m2/day,, that is 50% higher than open pond systems. There are many other advantages apart from the numbers. Risk of contamination is very low Temperature and pH can be controlled easily Improved mass transfer because of easy mixing However, before you want to build your own potentially patentable Photobioreactor in your back yard, think of the high cost of installation and high maintenance cost that keeps these systems from being competitive. Growing algae for commercial application means that we are growing in the number that is about thousand to millions of gallons. As of now there is no one single harvesting system that is capable of fulfilling all needs and when deciding on growth system, the question is the geographic location and the scalability an the target molecule. All these factors will influence the system you choose in cultivating the algae. There is further research that is on the way where the scientists are looking creatively to come up with cost efficient system of cultivating the algae like in the form of hybrid systems. But the basic idea is whatever might be the target algae based product, the cultivation method is a single aspect and the entire value chain should be considered. This process includes the selection of strains, product yield from biomass, products extractability, contamination of the chemicals, stability of the product and its convertibility. With the increase in any of these aspects will help in achieving the economic feasibility of the overall process.
How Algae Biofuels are different from others
High Productivity: The growth rate of algae is very high and they will rapidly multiply with 50 percent of their weight being lipids, or triacylglycerol‟s that can be used to produce the fuel. Microalgae can potentially produce 100 times more oil per acre than soyabeans or any other oil producing crop. “If we were to replace the entire diesel that we use in the United States” with an algae derivative, says Solix CEO Douglas Henston, “We could do it on an area of land that‟s about one-half of one percent of the current farm land that we use now.” In the AAAS conference scientists agreed that 4,350 to 5,700 gallons of fuel per acre of algae per year is realistic. This productivity is 10 to 100 times the productivity of other fuel sources ranging from soy to jatropha Non-Competitive with agriculture: Unlike the other oil producing crops like soya, corn etc, algae can be harvested in any climate like large open ponds or photobioreactors that are not used for agricultural purpose. Although algae fuel is not competing with the food, it needs water for their growth. But they are flexible to the quality of water. Waste water or sea water can be used in place of the fresh water that is normally used for agriculture. Mitigation of CO2: The main reason why this algae bio fuel is in demand is because of the process by which it creates the fuel. Algae like plants it is a photosynthetic organism. During photosynthesis, algae uses the solar energy and captures the carbon dioxide around it and creates biomass from it. So this algae cultivation can be done near the power plants, cement plants, biofuel facilities and other resources to make productive use of the CO2 produced at these places. Varied product portfolio: The lipids produced by algae can be used to produce a wide range of biofuels, and the remaining biomass residue has a variety of useful applications: can be used to generate heat by combusting can be used to produce methane by using anaerobic digesters can be used in producing ethanol Used in value added by-products, such as animal feed.
Challenges in cultivating the Algae According to an article published in May 2007 by the Nature magazine , Algae can also be picky: There is an article published by Nature Magazine in May 2007. According to that it was mentioned that these algae can be picky: They use sunlight for their growth, but if the sun light is high they will die. Temperature should be controlled steadily for the rapid growth of the algae. The growth of the algae will be inhibited by the overcrowding of the algae in a particular region. As part of their photosynthesis they will produce wastell oxygen, this should be continually removed from the water. Especially in open algal ponds it is hard to maintain the salinity and pH levels of the water due to rainfall and evaporation by sun, often the local algae overgrow the desired strain. Apart from the above challenges in the cultivation of algae, there are some obstacles that are hindering the growth of algal projects Finance. From almost one decade there are many interesting developments and innovations happening in this sector. But inspite of this there are very few companies coming forward and financing the study of algal cultivation. Technology. Most of the venture capitalists and corporates who are funding for the research and development of this algal cultivation are nearing to the commercialisation in the years to come. They are looking for the economic feasibility of the R&D that has been done. Competition. With the increase in the visibility and the technology of algal cultivation there are many small start-up companies growing in this sector. We can assume that bigger players emerging out of the group at the early stage business will make the market entry more difficult for the small players. Intellectual property. With the technology growing in the cultivation of algae and also the venture capitalists and the corporates nearing commercialisation, companies are looking for the patents of the technology looking at the future growth in this sector. But as of now patents do not really play a role as they will hinder the sharing of technology. No Opertaing large scale projects Several companies have issued press releases about technologies using closed photobioreactors to produce bio-fuels from algae, claiming ―enormous‖ amounts of biomass that can be turned into liquid fuels at low cost. Even after decades of development, none of the projects have
worked on a large scale or over a long period of time. From 1978 to 1996, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) experimented with using algae as a biodiesel source in the "Aquatic Species Program". Today most R&D efforts are being done in the private sector, with some promising concepts on the market but none fully commercialized. Algal compaanies specialized in Biodiesel production The following is a list of companies developing processes for the production of biodiesel from algae oil. There are many companies that are working for the development of biodiesel from the algae fuel. Following are some of the companies in this sector now.
Enhanced Biofuels & Technologies (www.ebtplc.com) EBT's headquarters is in London and its biofuel R&D centre in India. EBT creates this algae in an open pond combined with the bioreactor, both using CO2 from the coal fired power plant. By this process emissions are also reduced up to 82%. GreenFuel Technologies (www.greenfuelonline.com) GFT grow algae using the process of photosynthesis, capture CO2 and produce high energy biomass. They use these fossil fired power plants and other anthropogenic as sources of CO2 and they are trying to make it economical by converting into solid fuel, methane, or liquid transportation fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. GreenShift (www.greenshift.com/news.php?id=97) GreenShift has a patented bioreactor process based on iron-loving cyanobacterium, through their subsidiary Veridium (www.veridium.com), for the purpose of controlling air pollution of exhaust gas es from electrical utility fossil-fuelled power generation facilities. The grown algae will fall to the bottom of the bioreactor and are harvested for fuel.
LiveFuels (www.livefuels.com) - A alliance of labs and scientists at national level dedicated in transforming algae into biocrude by the year 2010. Working on breeding variety of algal strains, driving down the costs of harvesting algae and processes of extracting fats and oils from the algae. In May 2007 LiveFuels came up with a first round of $10 million, led by David Gelbaum of the Quercus Trust – a major donor to environmental organizations. Algoil (www.algoil.com)- It is a pioneer project that focuses on the production of biodiesel/biomass from micro-algae. The target of algoil is to use the remains of the extracted biomass to make food, biofuel, hydrogen, paper, or using it like charcoal.
Solix Biofuels (www.solixbiofuels.com) is a developer of heavily scalable photo-bioreactors for producing biodiesel and other useful bio-commodities from algae oil. Solix„ closed photo-bioreactors allow fossil-fuel power plant exhaust to capture through the growing system. The algae growth rates
will help in reducing presence of the carbon dioxide which would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere. Solix Biofuels has strong backing from a local private investor, and announces its plan to develop its technology as far as it can on its own before seeking venture capital.
PetroAlgae (www.petroalgae.com) is commercializing an eco-friendly alga that is developed by a research team at Arizona State University which generates over two hundred times more oil per acre than crops like soya. Using a cost-effective, modular cultivation process that can be largely scaled, PetroAlgae is trying to produce renewable feedstock oils for use in applications such as transportation fuels, heating oil, and plastics. PetroAlgae is a 95%-owned subsidiary of XL TechGroup, a conglomerate diversified in biotechnologies, life sciences and environmental technologies.
Investment firms interested in Algal companies There are many companies that are coming forward in investing and sponsoring the research , cultivation of algal fuels. Following are some of the venture capitalists and corporates listed. Venture capital firms United States, Access Private Equity United States, Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) United States, Harris & Harris Group United States, Khosla Ventures United States, Noventi (formerly Cypress Ventures) United States, Polaris Venture Partners United States, The Roda Group
Economic Feasibilty From the study it is found that how technically it is feasible to produce fuel from the algae. But there is one more important issue to be considered after the technical feasibility, which is the economic feasibility of the algal cultivation. It is not about producing the fuel but to produce at reasonable cost is the critical issue. This indicates producing the fuel from the algal strains at high productivity with low capital and operating costs. Currently Spirulina is the lowest cost algal biomass which is estimated at about $5000 per metric ton. Of course this algae is not used in producing the fuel and has very low productivity. Even if assuming this cost and 25% oil content in the algal biomass, will produce $20000 per ton of oil which is 20 times higher than the current crude oil prices.
Prior economic-engineering feasibility analyses have conclude that even the simplest open pond systems, including harvesting and algal biomass processing equipment, would cost at least $100,000 per hectare, and possibly significantly more. This needs to be added operating costs. And algae production requires a site with favourable climate, available water (which can be saline,
brackish or wastewater), a ready and essentially free source of CO2, nearly flat land, and with a clay soil or liner, as plastic liners would be too expensive. Prior economic engineering feasibility analyses concluded that even harvesting the algae and biomass production by open pond systems would cost at least $100000 per hectare. This excludes the operating cost of the open pond like water supply, water treatment etc. In addition to this one should maintain the favourable climatic conditions, free source of CO2 and nearly flat land which is very expensive to maintain. In brief, this represents the current reality, opportunity and challenges of microalgae oil and biofuels production. In any event, development of this technology will require long-term, high risk, R&D. Productivity Assuming present achievable productivity yield of about 50 mt/ha-yr biomass with 25% oil content (as triglycerides useful for biodiesel), or a yield of around 14,000 litres of oil per hectare per year, even a $1/litre, selling price, this would not be sufficient to meet the above estimated capital costs (depreciations, return on capital, other fixed costs), let alone any operating costs. This definitely requires major enhancements in the productivity of such systems, with a doubling, or even tripling, in outputs which currently is possible. This comparison does, however, put into context the present situation, compared to higher plants. Which already are producing at costs competitive with presently very high oil prices. Infact, using oil, starch, sugar or other crops for biofuels is limited by the need to feed the human population, and, in any event, would be highly limited in its ability to produce more than a small fraction of the demand for transportation fuels. The interest in microalgae, as the other alternative, so called second generation biofuel sources, is that these would, or could, be less competition with food and feed production and that large-scale production is possible. Current Innovations Currently the research on efficient algal oil production is almost done in the private sector, but if predictions from small scale production experiments bear out then producing biodiesel from algae may be the only viable method by which to produce enough automotive fuel to fulfil the demand of the current world gasoline usage, according to U.S. Department of Energy. In its short term, a countable number of early-stage companies working on algae want to produce Algae oils for biodiesel production, replacing a significant portion of the diesel fuel that currently serves about one-third of United States transportation. The research on algae for the mass-production of oil is mainly concentrated on micro-algae. The importance towards micro-algae is largely due to its less complexity in the structure, faster growth rate, and high oil content in the biomass. Some algal species are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high level of oil content – sometimes reaching near 50%. Many Commercial interests into large scale algal-cultivation systems are looking to tie with the existing infrastructures, such as coalfired power plants or sewage treatment facilities. This approach of integrating with the existing infrastructure not only provides the raw materials for the system, such as CO2 and nutrients; but it
changes the wastes into resources. A study on the feasibility of using marine micro-algae in a photobioreactor is being done by The International Research Consortium on Continental Margins at the International University Bremen. Patents in the Algae oil sector With the rapid change in the technology, there are a number of patents of photo-bioreactor and algae pond layouts as well as optimization processes are coming up, but the procedure of production biodiesel from Algae oil is fairly simple. We can easily predict that there are more photobioreactor, pond layouts as well as new processes of production will come into existence as more R&D is being conducted. Currently most companies in this sector are early stage start-ups and involved in R&D rather than commercialisation. To date, none of the companies has launched full commercialisation/industrialization of biodiesel from Algae oil on a large scale. Patents will be playing important factor in the future, especially when companies start raising money from venture capital (VC) firms which tend look at intellectual property as well as technological know-how and expertise. Combined geothermal use and biodiesel production An innovative concept came out of Infinifuel Biodiesel LLC. The company is the first to start a geothermal powered and heated biodiesel plant in November 2006 and therefore it has seen the success in combining the best of both worlds – geothermal energy and renewable biodiesel production from algae oil. Their aim is clearly stated – ―to be the leader in biofuel production, using Nevada's renewable geothermal resources to heat and power the plants”. Furthermore, Infinifuel Biodiesel LLC also aimed to be a ―zero waste‖ company and declares publicly: ―We are looking for beneficial uses for everything we produce, from glycerine to algae biomass. We have partnered with some diverse industries, which can use our by-products in an environmentally sensitive and responsible way.” Biodiesel from sewage ponds On May 11th, 2006 the Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation in Marlborough, New Zealand mentioned that it produced its first sample of biodiesel fuel made from algae found in sewage ponds. Unlike the earlier attempts, the algae were grown naturally in pond discharge from the Marlborough District Council's sewage treatment works. A recent paper from Michael Briggs, at the UNH Biodiesel Group, offers estimates the realistic replacement of fuel for all the vehicles with biodiesel by utilizing algae that have a natural oil content greater than 50%, which Briggs suggests can be grown on algae ponds in the waste water treatment plants. These oil-rich algae can be extracted from the system and further processed into biodiesel, with the dried remainder further reprocessed to create ethanol.
References http://www.cleantech.org Opportunities and challenges in algae biofuels production by Dr.John.R.Benemann http://www.oilgae.com http://www.algalbiomass.org
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