December 15, 2009

Can Green Algae Help Save the World?

Melanie Pahlmann reporting

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Corn and sugar cane, move over. Several US companies are harvesting an algae that can be converted to oil and refined into biodiesel. Amazingly, the algae can grow in waste water, where it feeds on carbon dioxide. This means the algae offers a double benefit: it eats up excess CO2 while it matures into a non-polluting fuel source.

Algae may one day be the preferred feedstock for biofuels. Because it's not grown in soil and isn't edible, algae doesn't compete with food. One of the great biofuel scams going on right now is the use of corn, soy, and sugar to produce ethanol, which are being blamed in part for higher food prices and deforestation around the world. The AP just reported that:

Corn prices have shot up nearly 30 percent this year amid dwindling stockpiles and surging demand for the grain used to feed livestock and make alternative fuels including ethanol. Prices are poised to go even higher after the U.S. government this week predicted that American farmers -- the world's biggest corn producers -- will plant sharply less of the crop in 2008 compared to last year.

Algae has a high energy density and can produce 15 times more oil per hectare than other biofuel crops currently being harvested (rape, palm soya, and jatropha plants). The algae matures in 24 hours, converting 50 percent of their weight into usable fuel! Growing ponds can be built and operated on a massive commercial scale, creating the opportunity to produce a cost effective alternative to traditional oil supplies.

Where are we at with biofuel algae? The Florida-based company PetroAlgae plans to have an operational initial production facility this year and hopes to test a commercial system as early as next year. Fuels giant Royal Dutch Shell and HR Biopetroleum recently announced the creation of a joint venture called Cellana to make biodiesel from algae in Hawaii.

Here are a few companies currently pursuing algae as a fuel source:
Live Fuels Inc.
Green Fuel Technologies