MAR 12, 2019 6:00 AM PDT

Algae Biofuel--What Happened After the Hype?

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Duan

(Wikimedia Common)

During the first decade of the 21st century, the world saw a rapid surge of research and development activities surrounding algae biofuel. The concept, which combines biological carbon capture and accelerated fossil fuel creation in its essence, has the environment-friendly appears.and advantages over the production of fossil fuel and energy source from other types of biomass.

After dozens of organizations spending hundreds of millions of dollars-worth investment, a significant portion of which came from Exxon Mobile and the Department of Energy, the bubble burst as no one managed to achieve a commercial scale process. The idea of extracting fuel oil from algae was since considered neither commercially viable nor environmentally responsible.

The boom started when algae were discovered to be much more efficient in capturing carbon and turn them into biofuel, as compared to terrestrial plants such as palms and corns. Algae do not require good quality land, so using algae as a source for biodiesel can alleviate the competition with food crops.

The genetically diverse, lipid-rich watery plant is not picky about water either: wastewater from farming, contaminated with fertilizers can be used as its primary source of water and nutrients.

Since many algae species are excellent bio-fixers, meaning the production process of algae biofuel can be a carbon-negative process, even though about a good percentage of the carbon will be released back to the atmosphere during fuel consumption. But the byproducts and scrap from algae can be easily buried as composting.

Later on, as more R&D was carried out, it turns out that growing algae in the industrial scale would require about the same footage of land if not ocean as other traditional fuel crops. It was calculated that an algae pond would need to suck around 4g of carbon from the atmosphere and transformed that into biomass per square meter (or 11 square feet) every day, in order to sustain fuel production and extraction.

From the biochemistry point of view, the amount of fertilizer that the growth of algae would need in an industrial setting is also astounding and may result in unhealthy competition with the need for food crop farming.

Some of the biofuel startups survived the burst, but they all switched gears to focus turning algae into other high-value products such as cooking oil, dietary supplement, and food coloring products. Meanwhile, algae biofuels research and development is still alive, with a smaller amount of funding dedicated to plausibly breakthroughs, in both biology and engineering.

For instance, chemical engineers from the University of Utah reported a new, energy-efficient method to extract lipids from the watery plant: they developed a new mixing reactor in which jets of the extraction solvent run against jets of algae, creating turbulence that "suck out" liquid from algae with ease.

As many are hopeful that more innovation will put us closer to turning algae into a viable, cost-effective alternative fuel, it is important to bear in mind that any breakthrough in industrial technology takes time, money, and careful, lengthy R&D.
 

Energy 101 | Algae-to-Fuels (DOE)

Source: Forbes

About the Author
  • Graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a master degree in neuropharmacology, Daniel is a radiopharmaceutical and radiobiology expert based in Ottawa, Canada. With years of experience in biomedical R&D, Daniel is very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles. The recurring topics in his Chemistry & Physics trending news section include alternative energy, material science, theoretical physics, medical imaging, and green chemistry.
You May Also Like
OCT 30, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Superconductivity at Room Temperature - Have Scientists Finally Achieved the Impossible?
OCT 30, 2020
Superconductivity at Room Temperature - Have Scientists Finally Achieved the Impossible?
First discovered by Dutch physicist Heike Onnes in the early 20th century, superconductivity is a rare phenomenon observ ...
NOV 12, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Can a Chemical Be Both Nurturing and Destructive?
NOV 12, 2020
Can a Chemical Be Both Nurturing and Destructive?
On August 4, a megascale explosion almost leveled half of Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. At the center of the negl ...
DEC 15, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Over-the-air Charging - How Close Are We to Realize Tesla's Vision?
DEC 15, 2020
Over-the-air Charging - How Close Are We to Realize Tesla's Vision?
When inventor and visionary Nikola Tesla erected his Wardenclyffe Tower, a 186-feet tall and 68-feet wide monstrous towe ...
JAN 20, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Check out this anode-free, zinc-based battery
JAN 20, 2021
Check out this anode-free, zinc-based battery
It is at once imperative and urgent to develop batteries capable of storing large amounts of energy if we are to success ...
JAN 27, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
Air purifiers may increase the spread of viral transmission, not hinder it
JAN 27, 2021
Air purifiers may increase the spread of viral transmission, not hinder it
A recent study published in Physics of Fluids, from AIP Publishing, sheds new light on the pros and cons of air pur ...
MAR 04, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
The magic vibrational powers of frog lungs
MAR 04, 2021
The magic vibrational powers of frog lungs
Ever tried picking someone up at a loud, crowded bar? It’s not easy – not only may they not hear your fabulo ...
Loading Comments...