Algae fuel oil, the new American green gold researchers. By David Lefebvre, the 31 / 12 / 2007. Photos DR.
Algaculture (the field of aquaculture) offers many promises. It would produce electricity, hydrogen, fertilizers, animal feed and liquid fuels.
In the United States, dozens of start-ups, born in 2007, research and develop the production of fuel oil from seaweed.
On paper, producing fuel oil from seaweed seems to be the most plausible substitution for oil.
Production that could meet both the environmental problems of CO2 emissions and the huge energy needs to thrive. Algae conversion of carbon sources such as CO2 to fuel oil would indeed yields of 30 at 100 times higher than oilseed crops. Logic when we know the capacity of proliferation of algae. There is in algaculture enough to supply the planet without cutting corners on his food needs.
Suffice to say that this technical challenge of seaweed oil is dreaming: more emissions of CO2, biofuel in sufficient quantity, clean and renewable since the original energy comes from the sun.
Dozens of start-ups.
Aware of its petrodependency, the United States is passionate about this subject. In 2006 and 2007, we no longer count the start-ups, blogs and established firms that announced the launch of an R&D division or a unit producing oil from algae. They are called GreenFuel Tech, Texas Clean Fuels, PetroAlgae, Victor Smorgon Group, OriginOil, Solazyme, Infinifuel Biodiesel, Solix Biofuels, GlobalGreen, Valcent, Greenshift - GS CleanTech, Aurora, General Atomics / CEHMM, Aquaflow, Petrosun, Greenshift, LiveFuels Inc, Algoil, and quantity others.
Field of algaculture (artist's view). Click to enlarge
Dispersion of knowledge
But, for the moment, no significant volume of algae oil has left any factory, even for the most concrete projects like Greenfuel which nevertheless raised 20 million dollars in funds in 2006. Nevertheless, Aquaflow, a New Zealand company, has successfully fueled an automobile with seaweed oil. Because it inspires dreams, this new green gold disperses knowledge and energies. Many researchers, phycologists or algologists and other specialists in the question, convinced that they can do it alone, leave their research unit with a few tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets to found their startup. Symbol of this dispersal of knowledge, John Sheehan joined Live Fuels, Inc., one of these new start-ups last August. This researcher had made a founding report, nicknamed in the States "the bible of the future", on oils produced by algae, when he was at the "National renewable Energy laboratory" - The national renewable energy laboratory in Golden, Colorado .
Operating principle of a fuel or coal cogeneration plant, CO2 and algae (artist's view). Click to enlarge
The oil tankers
Even the oil companies are embarking on the adventure, some just to buy an ethical image like Petrosun and others, in a more serious way, by injecting large funds like Chevron or Shell and its project Cellena in Hawaii. Algae are grown in huge open-air pools using seawater. Chevron, America's largest oil company, also has real hopes. Other countries are also looking at the issue like India with Algoil and even France since December 2006 with the Shamash project that raised 2,8 million euros of funds. Also, Israelis who have long owned algacultural farms like Seambiotic or Algatech in the Negev, but who remain very discreet about algae biofuels.
The technical difficulties of the algaculture
To achieve such a project, the required skills are numerous: genetics, phycology, fluid mechanics, biochemistry and industrial refining, motorists. For the moment, specific compounds such as dyes, fatty acids and other compounds such as alginates are used for agri-food, pharmachimie or the cosmetic industry. But nothing for the moment allows to say that the startup will arrive at algae crops content 80% oil by weight as GreenFuel support, at least in industrial conditions. Controlled eutrophication, the process by which algae proliferate under controlled conditions, faces many technical problems:
- contamination of algae,
- solubilization of carbon-based gases (fumes) while maintaining the viability of the environment,
- optimization of the gas / liquid interface,
- adapted algae strains,
- scattering of light in photobioreactors, etc.
A futuristic pump made from algae? (artist's view). Click to enlarge
Main source of inputs for agriculture
Finally, green gold seekers will probably have to come back to reality. As a first step, fuel oil may be just a co-product of algaculture. Algae biomass can also be converted into electricity through anaerobic digestion and electrical cogeneration, as J. Benmann, a specialist in the field, predicts. Also in fertilizer to replace fertilizer or feed. In the long run, the main inputs of agriculture will probably come from algae.