Abstract

This report examines the functionality of Algae as bio-fuel. The demand for energy is growing and the availability of fossil fuels is decreasing. Many sources of alternative energy have been researched but they are not as economically and environmentally beneficial as Green Algae. Following our guidelines for an efficient transition of infrastructure, Green Algae have the potential of eliminating our dependency on fossil fuels.

Contents

Introduction

The world’s demand for energy is rising steadily each year. Currently, the largest source of energy is the combustion of fossil fuels. It is projected that we will consume the remaining oil reserves within the next 50 years. Many developed countries, especially the U.S., are doing research in clean alternative fuel. There has already been research done to integrate wind turbines, solar panels, etc as alternative energy sources. These sources help to alleviate the need for fossil fuels but are not efficient enough to completely replace them. Alternatives like hybrid, hydrogen and electric power are attractive but will take decades to phase in because they will require new infrastructure. The goal is to create an alternative fuel that would be capable of completely alleviating our dependency on fossil fuels.

An enormous amount of research is being conducted on fuels that would be capable of replacing gasoline. Bio-fuel research began in the mid 1990’s. Currently our only source of bio-fuel is ethanol, which is produced from corn or common oils such as vegetable or soy and even animal fat can be refined and used as fuel. Recently, research has moved onto extracting oil from Algae to use as a bio-fuel. The basic principle is that we can extract the oils produced by algae to power a combustion engine similar to gasoline or diesel fuel. Algae are the perfect source of bio-fuel due to its rapid ability to grow. Algae can produce up to 10-100 times more oil per acre than conventional crops, such as corn, palms, soybeans, or canola (FIB). Algae can grow 20-30 times faster than food crops; this allows several harvests in a very short time frame (McDill). Algae farms can be constructed on land that is not suitable for other crops; such as deserts, where the soil is very saline and the average rainfall is very low. Studies have shown that algae can produce up to 50+% of their biomass in the form of oil (Haag). This oil can then be turned into biodiesel, which could be sold for use in automobiles. One could ask why Green Algae are not being pursued as a primary resource for alternative fuel. With proper integration into America’s infrastructure, Green Algae can potentially boost the economy and solve the energy crisis while creating a “greener” Earth.

Investigative Insight on Green Algae as a Potential Energy Source

World's Current Energy Use
  •  Growing need for energy. With the devastating effects of pollution and the grueling strain on our national budget, we are forced to come up with alternative fuels. Most of this energy is used by developed countries; the United States alone consumes 23.5% of the total energy (Energy). This roughly corresponds to 11.4kw a person.There is extensive research already being conducted on wind turbines, solar cells and even increasing our nuclear energy. The leaders around the world tend to lean towards bio-fuel as the energy source of the future.The competition between the developing countries in order to produce their goods has created a relative shortage in current fuels and therefore prices have increased significantly in the last decade. The figue above shows the world's current use of energy.
  • The current production method to create bio-fuels has been subjected to various criticisms. We currently use food such as corn, wheat and various other organic products to produce bio-fuel; these resources could help end hunger in poor nations. Furthermore the amount of farmland needed for wheat and corn production is viewed as an unbalanced trade compared to the amount of fuels we extract. David Pimental, a leading Cornell University agricultural expert, has calculated that powering the average U.S. automobile for one year on derived from corn would require 11 acres of farmland, the same space needed to grow a year's supply of food for seven people. Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion into ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make one gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTUS. Thus, 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in it. For one gallon of ethanol produced, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTUs.
  • With a global expansion of bio-fuel science, recent discoveries have indicated that Algae is a strong candidate to solve some of our issues.  According to an article posted on the “Popular Mechanics” website, Soy produces some 50 gallons of oil per acre per year; canola, 150 gallons; and palm, 650 gallons. But algae are expected to produce 10,000 gallons per acre per year. With the attention focused on the economy, developing this market could create more jobs and provide a relative energy freedom for the foreign oil that we import. There are a multitude of useful algae bio-fuel byproducts such as syngas, high-protein animal feeds, agricultural fertilizers, biopolymers (plastic), glycerin and even ethanol and jet fuel. We also face the issue of pollution and the terrible effects of global warming due to the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. One approach already adopted to tackle this problem is to pump the CO2 underground to dissolve in the North Sea oilfields. This obviously represents a danger for the ecosystem. Instead, we could extract the excess CO2 in the atmosphere and directly feed the gas into to the algae photo-bioreactors.
  • Factors to put in place in order to install algae fuel as a primary source of energy. In order to achieve optimal growth, algae only needs water, CO2, sunlight and other compounds such as nitrates or phosphates. The algae can grow in any deserted area where the conditions are extremes since the organism can quickly adapt to extreme temperature. Scientists also came up with the idea of photo-bioreactors. According to cranechempharma.com, a bioreactor could cost up to 200,000 €. Furthermore, the source of the CO2 will come from the exhaust of the major production companies in the country and store the gas through pipelines leading to storage facilities. This figure highlights the carbon dioxide emission in 2007 and provides a projection for 2030. The US department of energy information administration generated the data. This suggests CO2 capturing will ultimately represent the limiting factor in that transition.
  • The transition from fossil fuel to bio-fuel such as algae will create a big impact on the environment. According to a survey that we conducted recently, it was found that 85% of the participants were willing to buy a car running on bio-fuel. Alternative fuel cars are expected to cost slightly more than present cars but no prices have projected so far.

Proposed Steps for the Efficient Integration of Algae Fuel into Current Infrastructure

  • Genetically alter green algae to produce the highest oil to body mass ratio as possible to create an efficient species. Efficient is referring to the algae speed of growth with respect to oil content. Algae growth is dependent on a calm environment; it does not like agitation. One of the biggest challenges for creating high yield algae is how to introduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and nutrients needed by the growing algae without disrupting or over-aerating it.

  • Extraction Process
  • Create a uniform process to extract the oil in an efficient and cost effective manner. OrginOil, a leader in algae oil technology, has had a recent break through for the extraction of oil. They have created a low energy single step process to extract oil from algae Figure shown to the right. This is currently the most efficient process to extract the oil, in less than an hour, the oil, water and biomass separate by gravity alone. Conventional systems utilize the use of chemicals or heavy machinery to extract the oil, while this process does not. Another process that is being researched called Live Extraction, should be even more efficient. Similar to milking a cow, it achieves continuous algae oil production without destroying the algae cell. Hence, one algae cell can produce more oil with multiple cycles during its lifetime.
  • Build large production plants within the United States on areas that arealgae farm uninhabitable for other food crops. For example, in the drought stricken Midwest, thousands of acres can be dedicated to these production plants. Conventional algae plants have horizontal growing tanks in which the algae can only grow on the top layer. By utilizing a vertical layout, Figure shown to the right, more surface area can be created  to expose the cells to the sunlight. This vertical method also helps to create more compact production plants. If algae fuel completely replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (40,000 km2) using this vertical method (Hartman). This is less than 1/7 the area of corn harvested in the United States (US EPA).
  • During the production of these algae plants, the transition of the fueling stations must begin. This transition of bio-fuel fueling stations should take less time than that of hydrogen or electricity. However, there will still be a slow transition from gasoline to bio-fuel; every fueling station will be required to have at least 2 of the pumps switched to bio-fuel. In larger cities, fueling stations will be required to convert at least half of the pumps over. Once the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel decrease, all of the pumps will eventually be switched over.  

  • All public transportation and diesel trucks will be immediately required to run on bio-fuel.biofuel carThese are usually owned and run by the state and local government or large private companies. Publicly owned transportation can be mandated to switch. While large trucking and transportation firms can expect tax cuts if they make the transition early.

  • All new vehicles made in the United States will be required by law to run on bio-fuel. This is a critical step for this process to go smoothly. When the transition of the fueling stations begins, all vehicle manufacturers while be required by law to halt the production of gasoline vehicles and start to produce bio-fuel engines. The further limit the amount of gasoline vehicles, all vehicles imported into the United States running on gasoline will be taxed heavily. This immediate change in production will be the start of the slow process of removing gasoline vehicles from use. The government will offer a tax credit/refund similar to the in 2009 as an incentive to purchase these bio-fuel vehicle

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