Issue: Jan 2008


NEW BIOFUEL SOLVES RELATED WATER, LAND AND FOOD PROBLEMS



by Bob Brooks

Flying just below public awareness radar, are massive worldwide efforts to produce “super green” bio oil with energy yields one hundred times more per acre than corn ethanol or soybean oil without current bio fuel problems... The pressure to get on with this is driven by international discontent with biofuel counter productive fresh water, land and food diversion shortcomings.... As one example, the European Union is now considering a ban on biofuels due to their poor land and water use, illustrated by the Sri Lanka-based Water Management Institute calculation, for instance, that it takes 1000 liters of water to make 1 liter of corn based ethanol fuel. The run up in food prices and related reduced ability to control starvation in poor countries add to counterproductive factors. The clearing of forests to grow biofuel feed stock is another.

This has put the focus on the huge worldwide potential supply of algae bio oil which can be cultivated in salt water and waste water ponds in under used land areas... Pushing this effort are a “ whose who” of petroleum companies such as Chevron and Shell, suppliers such as UOP, new start firms and government agencies including DARPA (U.S. Defense Advanced Research projects) and The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Substitutes for petroleum diesel and aircraft jet fuels are sought and the potential for new source bio blended gasoline is emerging...

A front runner in the race to perfect economic algae based fuel is Solazyme, Inc. San
Francisco, CA which has signed a feedstock and testing agreement with Chevron Technology Ventures , a Division of Chevron U.S.A. Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme CEO reports that the firm has produced thousands of gallons of algae based diesel fuel termed “Soladiesel” and successfully tested it in an unmodified production Mercedes diesel car over a long distance.

Wolfson said “Soladiesel” meets U.S. ASTM bio diesel standard D6751 and the EU
EN 14214 standard. It additionally has superior temperature range essential for very cold operation. The potential for use as jet fuel at high altitude where cold flow down to –50F is required is indicated.

Solazyme’s position statement says, “The firm’s proprietary process for manufacturing high value, functionally tailored oils from algae is based on standard fermentation equipment”. To this Wolfson is quoted that “After decades of efforts by many interests, Solazyme has finally provided a scalable solution based on proven industrial processes
and that the “Soladiesel” product is a first example of how algae oil will help the environment through new products with attractive economics and performance”
He said, “Solazyme has already come a long way toward the goal of $45-50/bbl algae oil” (more)

Another large company getting underway with development of algae cultivation and use as biodiesel fuel is Shell Oil Company which has set up algae R&D operations in Hawaii.
Shell’s initial announcement referred to a particular strain of algae found there, that has a very high growth rate. Open ponds were shown in the press material but the firm has declined requests for an interview as of publication of this report.....

A published directory of “Biodiesel from Algae Oil” interests from PESWiki lists many dozens of firms and organizations involved in various aspects of the world wide effort to develop algae based energy. The scope of interest in algae is testimonial to the large potential and competition for positions in this new bio field.

Another biodiesel fuel that will reach the market sooner than algae biodiesel is derived from jatropha oil seeds, being cultivated on and planned for tens of millions of acres in many parts of the World. Jennifer Holmgren, director of renewable energy and chemicals at Honeywell’s UOP Division, said, “ Jatropha has been blended with petroleum diesel fuel then hydro treated to produce ‘green diesel’ ”.Holmgren said, “Extensive UOP testing found it to be superior fuel in all respects” and added, “ The market is ready for it whenever it becomes available in quantity”. Recent indications of Jatropha oil’s price delivered in the EU puts it at less than half current food crop vegetable oil prices.

Jatropha does not displace food crops, uses little water, and can grow on poor quality land. It represents jobs and increased freedom from expensive imported petroleum diesel fuel in many poor countries, and is sought by EU countries for its lower cost, and jatropha’s overall environmentally superior virtues. Compared with algae, however, jatropha yield per acre while better than corn based ethanol or soy biodiesel is a long way from the high yield from algae which grows at a ferocious rate. Researcher Paul Chen at the University of Minnesota Center for Biorefining believes yield per acre for algae may be as high as 25,000 gal/acre/yr which is hundreds of times greater than corn ethanol.

UOP literature suggests another factor. Catalytic cracking of vegetable oil (including algae and jatropha) combined with vacuum gas oil can produce what UOP calls “green gasoline”. A UOP spokesperson said its “green gasoline” will be economic when demand reaches a level adequate to justify investment in specialized “cat cracking” for a new fuel stream. UOP did not indicate the maximum bio percentage possible in “green gasoline” or “green diesel” in time for this report.

Already at the algae starting gate is oil services firm, PetroSun, Inc Scottsdale, AZ. which has announced that its subsidiary, PetroSun Biofuels Refining, has entered into a joint venture to construct and operate a biodiesel refinery near Coolidge, AZ. Plant capacity will be 30 million gallons/yr of biodiesel derived from algae. It will utilize non-potable or salt water, consume no fossil fuels, generate all of its own electrical and heat requirements, be carbon neutral, and process residual algae biomass into ethanol.

PetroSun plans to establish additional algae farms and algae extraction plants in three other U.S. states as well as Mexico, Brazil and Australia during 2008. Algae oil will be be marketed as feedstock to existing biodiesel refineries and its own refineries.

Among the many suppliers of methods for extracting oil from vegetable matter is Thar Technologies, Pittsburgh, PA, Thar CEO Lalit Chordia said use of very high pressure (10,000 psi) CO2 has demonstrated high percentage extraction of oil from algae and other bio oil sources. UOP’s Jennifer Holmgren agrees that high pressure CO2 extraction is an established method. .

Arizona State University’s Dr. Hu who said he has spent 25 years researching the algae energy subject said a lot of money over a long time has been devoted to the elusive algae target but much R&D is still needed. Perhaps the Chevron/Solazyme team and others will kick start a truly large green energy industry based on algae and Dr. Hu will get the funding he seeks for projects that will need focused attention.

Considering the World supply of salt and brackish water and available land suitable for ponds for cultivation of algae, the potential for algae based fuels appears to be something approaching limitless depending on cost... Algae’s environmental and social advantages, however, may well bolster its staying power in the overall competitive energy market as the World reaches for best use of fresh water, land, food crops and air quality. . .

About the author: Bob Brooks is a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and long time automotive journalist specializing in powertrains and fuels.

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