Algae will replace petroleum with biodiesel, biogasoline, and even plastic

I am amazed by algae to the point that I am convinced it can almost completely replace petroleum (the raw fossil fuel commonly referred to as “oil”).

Here are some important products that can be derived from processing petroleum OR algae:

And yes, the algae-based fuels (and plastics) work just as well as the petroleum-based fuels, and can be used in existing engines without any modification. Engines will run the same and burn cleaner (although they still emit CO2).

Of course algae and petroleum aren’t exactly the same. Petroleum can be processed to get: tar, asphalt, and pesticides. Algae can be processed to get: nutrients, animal feed, and vegetable oil.

Biofuels (like biodiesel) can be produced from any biomass (like corn, soy, or even wood chips). However, the efficiency (in terms of oil yield per acre) of algae is astronomical compared any other feedstock.

Algae:

  • naturally takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and releases oxygen (while alive)
  • grows very fast (harvest cycle of 1–10 days)
  • does not require fresh water (seawater and wastewater will do)
  • does not require quality farm land (dry or saline soil will do)
  • actually thrives off wastewater (found at a wastewater treatment facility, post-bacteria)
  • also thrives by consuming CO2 emissions directly from factories and power plants

Algae farms can easily have symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with cement factories, coal power plants, wastewater treatment facilities, or any other facility that produces CO2 emissions. For example, CO2 emissions are normally an unwanted bi-product. However, pumping the CO2 through algae will reduce the emissions and feed the algae growth leading to faster oil production.

Properly produced biofuels can be used in existing engines without modification. You’d have to modify a diesel engine to run on vegetable oil, yes, but it can be done. However, biodiesel is essentially the same as “petrodiesel” and can be used as a drop in replacement. To quote an article:

These biofuels, which some refer to as “renewable petroleum,” will be designed with the same properties of hydrocarbons that now fuel our vehicles, but be made from biomass, rather than petroleum.

Custom-designed synthetic fuels are very appealing to established fossil fuel providers because, unlike ethanol, they should not require significant changes to the existing fuel infrastructure, said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels policy analyst at the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC).

http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-9849832-54.html

Plastic can also be derived from algae (as opposed to petroleum). See:
http://www.celsias.com/article/cereplast-algae-plastic/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic

Videos

A couple of algae based companies have decent YouTube videos promoting their work.

PetroAlgae
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-RyKyvWr3I (video removed)

Valcent / Vertigro

Investing

I wish I could just invest in an index of all companies doing work with algae. However, no such index exists. Additionally, many companies doing good work are still privately owned. They are competing and guarding their secrets; thus slowing down progress. However, in the end, we will all benefit from the good ol’ American competition.

During my research, these companies stuck out:

Many sites discussing the up-coming algae market and companies refer to this list of 15 promising startups

For more on investing in green companies (including algae biofuels), check out:
http://www.greenchipstocks.com/
http://greenworldinvestor.com/

For general news and information on the algae industry, check out:
http://www.oilgae.com/
http://www.algalbiomass.org/
http://www.algaeindustrymagazine.com/

More Wikipedia pages:
List of algal fuel producers
List of biofuel companies and researchers

Cost and Timeline

Currently it’s cheaper to drill for petroleum. However, petroleum is a limited resource and prices are always going up. Meanwhile, technology surrounding harvesting and processing algae for biofuels and other products keeps getting better and cheaper. It’s only a matter of time before those 2 lines cross on the graph.

Obama supports domestic biofuels. If the government started officially endorsing (probably via tax credits) biofuels, and stopped supporting “petrofuels”, I am confident that we would be able to make the switch from fossil fuels to renewable fuels (for the vast majority of its applications).

This market is just waiting to explode. In the future, vehicles may have engines that work in completely different ways. For example, the hydrogen fuel cell, which powers electric cars and only releases water as the bi-product. However, for the time being, we have to deal with the millions of vehicles and engines that already exist. The intermediate step will be to replace the FUEL.

3 Comments on Algae will replace petroleum with biodiesel, biogasoline, and even plastic

  1. srunge says:

    several labs at my school are currently studying the production of biofuels . :)

  2. Crystal says:

    One of my students wrote a paper about this last semester. The paper wasn’t very good, but the topic was very interesting! It causes me actual, physical pain that we can’t break free of fossil fuels for alternative energy sources!

  3. Natividad Brehony says:

    For experiment purpose, Virgin’s eco-plane ran only three engine with that fuel & the other three engines were filled with standard jet fuel. In addition the Biofuel-powered engine was using a blend of conventional jet fuel & Biofuel: 80/20 in favor of the regular stuff. In sum 5% of the 49,000-lb (22,000 kg) fuel load consisted of the novelty: a special mix of coconut oil & oil from the Brazilian babassu plant, prepared by Seattle-based Imperium Renewable over the last 18 months & tested by General Electric Aviation in Ohio.*

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