A Solution to the Biofuels Puzzle?

Wired.com had a fascinating article today about the potential of biodiesel derived from algae.

An array of tubes used to grow and harvest algae.
An array of tubes used to grow and harvest algae.

A start-up company called Sapphire Energy is working on methods of growing algae and converting it into biodiesel fuel. They say they can produce one million gallons of fuel annually by 2011 and one billion gallons by 2025.

According to Sapphire, biodiesel made from algae is chemically identical to crude oil. That means it can be refined to whatever standard is needed and then used in today’s vehicles without an special modifications. The fuel has already been used to power jet airplanes on test flights.

Algae-based biodiesel delivers 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than ethanol. Also, the algae is grown in transparent tubes which require only sunlight and fertilizer. These tubes can be placed on non-arable land so they don’t compete with food crops. An acre of agae tubes will be able to deliver 10 to 100 times more energy than ethanol. It also requires less water than corn. In addition, algae eats up a massive amount of CO2 during its growth (oceanic algaes are actually the main purveyors of photosynthesis on planet earth). This is enough to offset the amount of CO2 released by burning the fuel, meaning algal fuels are CO2-neutral.

Sapphire Energy’s main hurdle is convincing people to switch over to the new fuel. They aren’t getting any government subsidies, which means they won’t be producing fuel no one is buying. In order to get people to switch over to algal based fuels, they need to offer a fuel that will make them a profit while being more economical than gasoline, either by being cheaper or by being more efficient. That’s the only thing that will cause biofuels to become widely adopted.

3 comments

  1. Subsidies for ethanol and other inefficient fuel sources may keep efficient fuel sources off the market. We can only hope that federal policies change.

    Oh, or we could elect politicians who refuse to pick winners and losers in the market.

  2. I’ve always been skeptical of the current methods of biofuels production – because they’re either dependent on a continuing massive flow of waste, or on cropland that could be used for food – but I’m not sure this doesn’t have some hidden costs as well. How much water will it take to produce a billion gallons of fuel per year? Does the part about it being a “drop in” replacement for crude oil mean that it’s not any cleaner-burning? CO2 neutrality is great but if it’s still churning up huge amounts of particulate, then it’s not exactly “green.”

  3. Biodiesel is a fuel that is made from soy beans, or waste vegetable oil(cooking oil). It can be used in place of petroleum diesel fuel for vehicles or heating oil for buildings. Unlike petroleum diesel, biodiesel is a renewable resource, and it creates less pollution than petroleum diesel. It can be used alone or in combination with petroleum diesel, or with heating oil. Generally, no expensive modifications to the engines are required. This makes it easier to integrate biodiesel into current systems than other alternative energy sources, which often require new equipment. ^

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