Algae Based Biofuels in Plain English: Why it Matters, How it Works.
Algae based biofuels. You've probably heard the term tossed around, and have maybe even said it in a sentence or two yourself. But have you ever really understood what it means, what the implications are, and on a basic level, how it works and if it has even the slightest chance to be a viable large scale player in supplying for our fuel needs? For many of you, I'm imagining the answer is no. Even I, a green business consultant, was quite fuzzy about it all. Until today.
Today I came across a video put out by the folks at Valcent, which makes absolutely clear, and absolutely exciting, the what, how, and how much of algae based biofuels, and in particular how their method, via High Density Vertical Bioreactors, they will do it much better. Say what?
In plain English, with their Vertigro system, they change the plane of producing algael biofuels from horizontal to vertical, keeping the liquid medium it's growing in constantly moving. And this matters why?
You've probably seen what happens to a still body of water like a pond or a pool: Thick, stagnant algae, that once it reaches a certain density, blocks out sunlight from continuing to produce algae at maximum potential.
What happens when you take it vertical? More potential surface area (think rows of sun exposed surfaces vs. just one) and therefore more carbon sequestration. Algae, according to the Valcent video, is the fastest growing plant in the world, and in the process of this, absorbs a great deal of CO2.
It also produces lipids, or the equivalent of vegetable oil. Depending on the species, 50% of it's body weight is these lipids. And they can select for certain algae strains that are particularly suited for making jet fuel or diesel, which most long haul trucks use. Both are huge contributors to environmental pollutants with their current petroleum based fuels.
How does algae stack up to the current 800 pound gorilla in the US, corn based ethanol? According to the Valcent video, an acre of corn can produce 18 gallons of oil/year. Really? That sounds terribly inefficient to me. Palm oil produces 700-800 gallons/acre. Respectable amount, but its cultivation has been a frequent issue due to unsustainable cultivation practices (Read: chopping down the rain forest)
Algae, even in a regular, horizontal, open pond system, can produce up to 20,000 gallons of oil per year. This is including such factors as water evaporation, growth inhibiting more growth below, and the accidental introduction of foreign algae strains from the air. With algae biofuel production, they can take what remains after extracting the oil, and put it to use as feed stock for animals, as a component of fertilizer, and even to produce even more biofuel. So everything that runs through their systems finds use.
The video finishes with a startling claim: If they were to put to use 1/10th of the land area of New Mexico, they could meet all the energy demands for the entire United States. That, versus resource depleting, conflict generating, pocketbook sapping petroleum based fuels I would take any day!
See the video for yourself here.
Readers: What's your take on this? Truth? Exaggeration?
Viable? Pipe dream? Oil industry comment trolls stay away please. Or
show us your stats! :-)
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. His overarching talent is "bottom lining" complex ideas, in a way that is understandable and accessible to a variety of audiences, internal and external to a company.