August 5, 2011

OOZE, BABY, OOZE:

Oozing Biofuel: Algae Could Solve World's Fuel Crisis (Von Philip Bethge, 7/28/11, Der Spiegel)

A green algae liquid sloshes back and forth in culture vats and circulates through shiny bioreactors and bulging plastic tubes. The first tests of algae-based fuels are already being conducted in automobiles, ships and aircraft. Investors like the Rockefeller family and Microsoft founder Bill Gates are betting millions on the power of the green soup. "Commercial production of crude oil from algae is the most obvious and most economical possible way to substitute petroleum," says Jason Pyle of the California-based firm Sapphire Energy, which is already using algae to produce crude oil.

The established oil industry is also getting into the business. "Oils from algae hold significant potential as economically viable, low-emission transportation fuels and could become a critical new energy source," says Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at Exxon Mobil. The oil company is investing $600 million (€420 million) in genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter's firm Synthetic Genomics.

The technology holds considerable promise. Indeed, whoever manages to be the first to sell ecologically sustainable and climate-neutral biofuel at competitive prices will not only rake in billions, but will also write history.

Do-it-yourself diesel barons launched the biofuel industry decades ago when they used old French-fry grease to fuel modest agricultural machines. Today, hundreds of thousands of cars run on ethanol derived from grain. In the United States, for example, more than 40 percent of gasoline contains ethanol additive. The fuel is produced in huge fermenters the size of blimps, by fermenting a mash of corn or rye with yeast.

But ethanol as a biofuel has a bad reputation. One hectare (2.47 acres) of corn produces less than 4,000 liters of ethanol a year, and 8,000 liters of water are required to produce a liter of ethanol. Besides, crops grown for ethanol take away valuable farmland for food production. The last growing season marked the first time US farmers harvested more corn for ethanol production than for use as animal feed. One of the adverse consequences of the biofuel boom is that it is driving up food prices.

For this reason, many environmentalists now believe that growing energy plants is the wrong approach. Algae, on the other hand, do not require any farmland. Sun, saltwater, a little fertilizer and carbon dioxide are all the undemanding little organisms need to thrive. And because they consume about as much CO2 during photosynthesis as is later released when the oil they produce is burned, algae-based fuels are also climate neutral.

Algae are also astonishingly productive. A hectare of sunny desert covered with algae vats can yield almost eight times as much biofuel per unit of biomass in a year than corn grown for energy purposes.


Posted by at August 5, 2011 6:46 AM
  

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