BIG BUSINESS IN ALGAE: HOW POND SCUM COULD SOLVE THE PETROLEUM CRISIS

While biofuels made with ethanol and soybean oil dominate the renewable energy debate, not everyone is aware that single-celled algae can also provide a valuable fuel source.  Microalgae, the bright green “scum” most often observed on lakes and ponds, contain the same kinds of organic oils as corn or soybeans that make them viable for biofuel production. In fact, most of the petroleum we currently rely on is made from fossilized algae.  But innovations in recent years have enabled scientists to convert non-fossilized algae into crude oil, a development which may provide a solution to our reliance on petrochemical energy.

OriginOil, an American company responsible for several breakthroughs in algae-based biofuel technologies, announced a commercial agreement last week with Aquaviridis, an algaculture company based in Minnesota with several sites in Mexico.  The new agreement (made possible by the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]),  will create green jobs in both countries by introducing technology developed by OriginOil to Aquavirids’s algae processing facility in Mexicali, Mexico.  While the agreement deals with algae production for a range of uses, OriginOil’s new technology promises to improve the efficiency of algal-oil fuels in a commercial capacity. 

Thomas Byrne, president of Aquaviridis, explained, “After evaluating OriginOil’s portfolio, our technical team felt that OriginOil had some novel, scalable, and potentially game-changing technologies for algae harvesting and growth enhancement. We are excited about the opportunity to work closely with them as a partner during our research and planning stage. Having the right partners and technologies is critical, as our expectation is to have this facility in revenue this year.”

The newly modernized facility intends to proceed from research and development to a 10 acre pilot algae farm by the middle of the year, and commercial scale algae production is scheduled for the second quarter of 2013.  Assuming commercialization is successful, the deal could pave the way for a series of algae farms and production facilities in both the US and Mexico.  OriginOil’s vice president of marketing, Ken Reynolds, has high hopes for the project.

 “The Mexicali Valley is a great place to develop an algae industry, given its climate and access to industry research and resources throughout North America. With the U.S. as a neighboring market for high value exports, Mexico is in an excellent position to take the lead in areas such as research and production of algae for nutritional products, animal feed, and oil for biofuels, which would create long-term regional economic growth and job production,” he said.

ECONOMIC FACTORS—WHY ALGAE?

British economist Lionel Robbins coined the classic definition of economics:  the study of scarce resources which have alternate uses.  Indeed, both the “scarcity” and “alternate uses” of conventional biofuel sources seem to present obstacles for their long-term cost competitiveness.  This is because soybean and corn oils necessarily demand an important tradeoff—to produce fuels like ethanol, farmland and crops must be designated specifically for fuel instead of food. The price of soybeans, for example, has soared in recent years to reflect direct competition between biofuel producers and manufacturers of a multitude of other soy-based products.   These competing interests within the agricultural industry have prevented soybean and corn fuel from becoming price competitive with petroleum, despite biodiesel and ethanol typically receiving the lion’s share of renewable energy subsidies.  (The legislation providing for the ethanol subsidy expired on Dec. 31.)  Moreover, political pressure from the petroleum industry could complicate any meaningful changes toward renewable energy in the long-term—such a fundamental shift would cost countless oil refining jobs, a prospect which has sparked opposition to emerging fuel sources from the multi-billion dollar oil industry.   

But algal-oil fuel production may avoid these economic pitfalls.  While countless food products are composed from corn and soybeans, pond scum has substantially fewer alternate uses.  And fewer competing interests within algae markets means potentially lower prices on fuels made from algae biomass.  Furthermore, because algae grow in an aquatic environment which is unsuitable for conventional agriculture, cultivation doesn’t require a tradeoff with farmland which would otherwise be viable for food.  In fact, commercial algae production can take place in ocean water or even wastewater.  Almost the entire organism is devoted to converting sunlight to oil, or lipids (not the case with corn or soy), compelling one biofuel company to claim that an area of algae the size of a two car garage could potentially produce as much energy as an entire football field of soybeans. 

But perhaps most impressively, representatives from OriginOil claim that their technology can be implemented in existing petroleum refineries which could be overhauled and converted to algae oil production.  This means that the infrastructure necessary for a complete transformation of our energy market may already be in place, a distinction which could present two potential advantages for proponents of algae fuel: it could ease the transition from petroleum to renewable fuel sources, saving potentially billions of dollars otherwise necessary to build a new energy infrastructure, and it could go a long way toward quelling opposition from the petroleum industry, who could conceivably still profit from algae produced in existing petrochemical refineries. 

FORESEEABLE BARRIERS TO CHEAP ALGAE

For now, algal-oil fuels are still far from being cost-competitive with petroleum.  There are three primary obstacles to efficient algae production.  First, since algae are aquatic, individual cells must be separated from water and concentrated.  Second, single-celled algae have a tough outer cell wall which must be cracked before oil can be harvested from the cell.  Both of these processes are energy intensive, and therefore costly.  OriginOil has addressed these problems with a patented process called Quantum Fracturing, which combines technology involving electromagnetic fields with pH modification.  According to OriginOil, this “Single-Step Extraction” process is less costly than conventional techniques, and necessarily results in the separation of water, oil, and biomass.  A time lapse video of this separation process can be seen at OriginOil’s website.  Finally, because algae processing is inherently energy intensive, energy use must be extremely efficient at all stages of production.  OriginOil hopes to sequester and reuse gas byproducts like hydrogen produced by algae growth in order to make harvesting as energy-efficient as possible.  Additionally, OriginOil claims that oil-depleted algae cells can be used to supplement cattle feed.

All of which suggests a promising future for OriginOil and algaculturalists across the board. But if algae-based fuels are to meet our growing energy demands, there are still technological hurdles to be cleared.  Privately funded research and development from innovative companies like OriginOil and Aquaviridis is yielding exciting results.  Before deciding whether to renew ethanol subsidies, the federal government may be wise to give thought to incentivizing investment in emerging energy technologies like algal-oil extraction.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/phoenixwolfray/3584346234/sizes/s/in/photostream/

NY Fashion Week To Run On Cleaner Energy This Year

In a few days, the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week will not only be debuting the industry’s new fashions and styles, but also a cleaner energy source to power the semi-annual event. After complaints from local residents and businesses, Fashion Week organizers say they will reduce the use of old, diesel powered generators and lean towards cleaner sources of energy to provide electricity. The event will be held at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Diesel generators used in previous Fashion Weeks were scattered around the vicinity of the event and caused many to fume over the noise and air pollution the event brought with it. A few of these generators were older and more pollutive, and many people complained about the worsened air quality and noise before, during, and after Fashion Week. Violetta Ungar, a local resident, told the NY Times, “The noise, the fumes – I smell it all day and all night.”

Another resident likened the generators to power the event to “several buses idling outside your window continuously, 24 hours a day, non-stop.”

Despite the complaints, IMG Fashion claims they try their best to make Fashion Week an eco-friendly event. Lighting and ventilation systems are energy-efficient and the tents are reused or recycled for future events. IMG spokesman Zach Eichman says, “We’re very proud of our team and vendors’ continued efforts to be green and are striving to grow those efforts each season.”

For September’s Fashion Week, IMG Fashion will address the complaints and make a few changes, for the better. Two of the older and noisier generators will not be used this September. The rest of the generators, which ran fully on diesel fuel in the past, have been converted to run on a blend of biodiesel fuel. Additionally, parts of the event will plug in and draw electricity from Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus and the David H. Koch Theater. IMG will pay for the electricity they use.

Locals have already noticed the changes made for September’s event. A resident said in an email that “the diesel smell that was wafting through the air last winter is gone. The conversion to electrical power at 62nd and Columbus has definitely made a difference in the air compared to last winter. It’s unknown what the air will be like when they turn on the big generators in a few days, but there is a clear difference so far.”

So how much power does Fashion Week need? IMG Fashion is unable to provide an exact number, but a spokeswoman estimates that 100,000 attendees and 3,000 media professionals attend. Also, various vehicles are used for warehouse and backstage-type operations. The spokeswoman believes Fashion Week is comparable to running  “three Broadway plays simultaneously for seven days.” Add to that the hours of blow dryers and hair irons running and the lights make up artists use.

Fashion Week’s changes for the better of the environment was possible in part of the activism of local residents. City Council member Gale Brewer represents the area Fashion Week is held and fought to defend her constituents and make known their concerns.

Additionally, Brewer sees this as an opportunity to address other sources of noise and air pollution and help improve the city. She believes laws need to be in place to regulate other sources of noise and air pollution common in New York, such as food trucks and street fairs.

As residents of New York City did, people anywhere in the country can make a difference and stand up against unwanted noise and air pollution. A couple of related advocacy groups include Noise Free America and the American Lung Association (ALA). These two groups are both active in fighting for air quality and to minimize noise and operate both nationally and locally in regional chapters. Lastly, the EPA’s website contains information and links about noise and air pollution.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/artcomments/249762542/

Sustainably Tapping the Rainforest for Biofuel

Can a sugar palm tree hold the key to combating the most pressing concerns in the rainforests of Southeast Asia? World famous biologist and conservationist Willie Smits thinks so, and has a $100,000 grant from National Geographic in his pocket to pursue what may prove to be a monumental breakthrough in the rain forest regions of the world.

With strategic planting of the Arenga sugar palm, Smits and his company, Tapergie, believe that the trees of the Indonesian rainforest can become a productive and sustainable source of biofuel  — a plan not many would expect from a man who has devoted his life to protecting the area’s biodiversity. But what makes Smits’ hypothesis so encouraging is that, unlike past biofuel endeavors that have led to devastating clear-cutting, his plan would tap the forests for energy while protecting the environment, providing jobs, and increasing food security in the region.

It would seem logical for such a system to be complex and impractical, but Smits’ project is remarkably straightforward in theory: plant the Arenga in the forest, and then tap (not cut down) the tree for its sugary juice, which can produce alcohol and ethanol, as well as an organic sugar. Smits refers to the process as “basically only harvesting sunshine.” Picture tapping a maple tree for syrup, except in this case it’s empowering local communities, providing a sustainable energy source, and preventing the deforestation of one of the world’s most precious ecosystems.

Smits’ remarkable concept centers around the Arenga, or “the most amazing tree I’ve ever run into,” according to Amory Lovins, the chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute and a part of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge advisory board. The palm is perfectly suited to grow in Indonesia’s rainforests. It can grow without fertilizer, is drought, pest, and fire-resistant, and has deep roots that allow it to flourish on the steepest of slopes.

These features, however, only scratch the surface of all that the Arenga can do. The tree is an extremely efficient photosynthetic plant, meaning that it can produce year-round and consistently be tapped for its resources. By the numbers, Smits’ projections for the Arenga’s output are just as staggering. He claims that the process has the potential to create 6,300 gallons of ethanol per hectare each year. To put this in perspective, the USDA’s latest yield figures state that corn currently produces 1,100 gallons of ethanol per hectare. Sugar cane in Brazil yields 1,500 gallons per hectare and also pales in comparison to the Arenga’s productivity. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the sugar palm cannot grow in a monoculture much like corn is planted row after row for as far as the eye can see in the American Midwest.

For what Smits’ system could do for renewable energy, it could do just as much for the local infrastructure of remote communities in the rainforest region. The Arenga can be tapped twice a day and requires constant tending. Smits believes that the job cannot be done my machine, but rather must be done by trained workers who know how to properly tap the tree and efficiently preserve its emissions. Thus, the system would boost employment in some of Indonesia’s most remote areas. Smits hopes to model these systems after Tapergie’s three-year-old facility in Tomohon, Indonesia, which has not only employed over 6,000 workers, but also runs on geothermal energy and provides its biofuel to the immediate area to run vehicles and generators. Smits envisions adapting the principles of the Tomohon facility to be suitable for the more remote communities scattered throughout most of the rainforest that live without electricity, safe drinking water, or much education. He believes that his centers can become hubs in these regions, providing jobs, education, and a sustainable base for a number of developments to improve villages’ quality of living.

Conservation and the production of biofuel have traditionally seemed incompatible when dealing with the delicate and irreplaceable rainforest region. Previous attempts to produce energy from the Indonesian rainforest as a way of reducing carbon emissions backfired horribly. The hope of producing biofuel from oil palms only led to the clear cutting and razing of forest in favor of converting land for monocultures. Not only did the system fail to deliver the desired biofuel production, but it rocketed Indonesia up the rankings of greenhouse gas emitters, placing the country only behind China and the United States.

One of the first people to recognize the dangers of this manner of biofuel production was Smits, and now he is poised to lead the charge into a much more promising system that aims to offset previous failures and then some. With the $100,000 grant, Smits will create a prototype system to put his hypotheses to the test. If successful, Smits’ concept has the potential to bring monumental change to the Indonesian rainforest and the world as a whole.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/wak1/32998947/sizes/z/in/photostream/

Biofuels Next for Aviation Industry?

Today, a new report is confirming that aviation biofuels are a viable option for Australia and New Zealand and can be produced in commercially viable quantities.  These new options could cut down the emissions from greenhouse gasses by 17 percent.

The report, “Flight Path to Sustainable Aviation”, which is commissioned by numerous companies including Boeing, Qantas, Virgin Australia, and Air New Zealand,  also claims that over the next 20 years a change to aviation biofuels could generate over 12,000 jobs.

Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), compiled the report and estimated that Australia’s reliance on aviation fuel imports would be reduced by $2.1 billion a year with a change to using biofuels made from non-food crops. 

“Through the uptake of sustainable bio-derived jet fuel, together with next generation aircraft and engines, the industry can reduce both its emissions and its reliance on imported fossil fuel” said Paul Graham, project leader and a CSIRO economist.

“This study highlights promising options for the aviation industry”.

Biofuels have been controversial and criticized for using vital food crops, land and water resources, but the scenario presented by the CSIRO deals with sources with non-food biomass such as forestry residues, municipal waste and algae. 

Several airlines, including Continental Airlines, Air New Zealand, And KLM have already tested biofuels. 

By 2050, the IEA (International Energy Agency) estimates that 30 percent of the global aviation fuel supplies will be made up of biofuels. 

Photo Credit: wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/EEF5E78B-0939-452C-8B03-DBE591997968/0/Airlines250.jpg

Jatropha Takes Off As A Sustainable Jet Fuel Alternative

Jatropha-curcas, a non-edible weed with oil-rich seeds, is gaining reputation as a source of environmentally and economically sustainable aircraft fuel, according to a study released by Boeing.

The oil-producing seeds of the Jatropha holds great promise as biofuel source because the plant is poisonous and nonedible. It grows best on non-agricultural land, so it avoids the food versus fuel debate. Growing edible fuel is known to introduce complex problems for farmers and the agricultural market, but jatropha is free of these issues.

The researchers discovered that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 60 percent with the jatropha oil fuel versus petroleum-based fuel.

Jatropha seeds are made of 27-40 percent oil. The plant itself is a semi-evergreen small tree or shrub that can survive in arid conditions.

The study assessed farming conditions in Latin America and used sustainability criteria from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels. Interviews with farmers as well as field instruments made it a truly comprehensive analysis.

Researchers specifically determined that greenhouse gas benefits depended greatly on prior land use. If native trees and grasses are cut down to make way for growing the crop, then those environmental benefits would not be seen.

If the crop is grown on land that was already degraded or cleared, it would exceed the 60 percent baseline due to increased carbon storage.

Researchers also noted that early farming attempts were marked by poor yields, but that seed strain development would solve that problem.

Boeing has strong motivation behind funding the study and publishing successful results. Climate change is fueling discussions about the need to reduce air travel and the impacts of jet fuel on the atmosphere. Boeing, as a major aircraft producer, would prefer to ease this tension.

“The invaluable insights provided by this study will help our airline customers to better understand the sustainability of this potential jet fuel source, while also providing solid scientific data to governments and environmental organizations throughout the region,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes Director of Environmental Strategy Michael Hurd, as quoted by Commodity Online.

The biofuel has so far been tested on numerous airlines including Japan, Continental, Brazil’s TAM, Air New Zealand, and Interjet, all with success. Thousands of jobs have opened up as a result of the new agricultural sector.

Meanwhile in the world of innovative Boeing projects, the company is developing a super quiet, super light Supersonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research “SUGAR” project, according to Aerospace Defense Media Group. Costing $8.8 million, it is part of a NASA program aiming to develop aircraft with reduced emissions, fuel consumption, and noise. The models were meant to be tested in wind tunnels and computer simulations.

Boeing is continuing its work on SUGAR and is developing even more super lightweight planes with advanced engines that would be up in the air in thirty years.

Photo Credit