The Science of Sustainability

Algae…Soylent Green…and the Future of Biofuel

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Emma Valdez, a Sapphire Energy technician, holds a petri dish with 1 million algae cells. Algae is grown and scaled up to 20-liter containers in about one week.

Emma Valdez, a Sapphire Energy technician, holds a petri dish with 1 million algae cells. Algae is grown and scaled up to 20-liter containers in about one week.

With more and more cars on roadways worldwide – and fossil fuel supplies running low, can renewable fuels really replace crude oil?

In Nebraska, the alternative of choice is ethanol because corn is the mainstay of our economy.  But corn, along with many other crops, takes lots of land…and huge amounts of water.  As important as it is to Nebraska, ethanol, at best, is a 10% additive, not a future fuel in its own right.

So what’s a real alternative?  Research shows one promising alternative seems the least obvious – algae (see QUEST Nebraska: Algae for Fuel).

Algae is a microscopic plant-like marine organism.  There are billions of them in our world, and they exist all around us.  Algae are found in ponds, lakes, streams – all types of bodies of water…even in your bathtub if it’s not cleaned regularly.

It’s green and a bit slimy to the touch.  For the most part, we avoid contact with algae – but it just may be the key to our energy future.  How’s that?  Companies like Sapphire Energy in San Diego, CA are working with universities, including the University of Nebraska to make microscopic algae into the fuel for the future.

Algae conjures up thoughts about Soylent Green, the 1973 sci-fi movie thriller that depicts human survival dependent upon on a green food ration made of “high protein plankton.”  Algae are a type of plankton.

SPOILER ALERT:  Do not read the next sentence if you’ve never seen this movie. 

But there was more to the content of Soylent Green.  Charlton Heston solves the riddle with a horrific warning:  Soylent Green is PEOPLE!

Remember when I said algae are slimy?  There’s a reason for that.  If Charlton Heston was warning us, he’d exclaim: Algae is OIL!  Not exactly – but oil we use for our fuel today is actually made from ancient, ancient algae.

“Each algae contains up to 50% oil,” says University of Nebraska-Lincoln biologist George Oyler.  Over millions of years, billions of algae die, collect, and over time are chemically altered through pressure and heat that converts algae oil into “crude oil” which we seek and drill for to energize our world.  Finding a way to convert algae into oil faster than nature would create an almost endless supply of oil.  “We want to accelerate that process into a single year.”

In 2009, a QUEST video Algae Power, surveyed algae biofuel as a grand experiment, “not ready for prime time.”  The problem was scaling up to industrial production.  Now, Sapphire Energy is leading the way towards industrial production.  It’s no longer a survey experiment.

The process begins as Sapphire technician Emma Valdez swipes a metal loop over an algae filled petri plate (culture dish) and transfers cells to a new plate. “Algae is one of the fastest growing plant on the planet.  This plate contains millions of algae cells.  I can take this plate and make multiple copies.”  Pointing to a stack of petri dishes, she explains that these plates are added to water to make a dense culture, giving rise to 20-liter glass carboy containers.  “I can grow this to scale in a little over a week.”

The carboy containers are then added to long oval test pools in a greenhouse, creating larger concentrations of promising algae species.

Growing algae outdoors is a huge challenge.  But that’s exactly Sapphire’s goal – creating algae farms.  But algae is a wild plant.  “No one’s taken a wild plant and just grown it to scale,” says Mike Mendez, Sapphire’s former VP of Technology (now a research professor at UC-San Diego).  “Algae isn’t an industry.  It’s a commodity, like corn.  We have to think like a farmer and grow algae as a crop.” 

But plants like corn haven’t become crops overnight.  Mendez says, “It took 7,000 years to get corn where it is today.  I’m gonna have to do whatever it takes to speed up the process.”  Sapphire wants to plant, harvest and process algae oil in real time.

Algae ponds at Sapphire Energy's test farm in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Algae ponds at Sapphire Energy's test farm in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

So, Sapphire has created a 20-acre aquatic test farm in arid Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Why here?  New Mexico has an abundance of sunlight and a rich supply of salt water beneath the dry sands that can’t be used for farming or drinking, but is perfect for growing algae.  Nonetheless, the algae has to survive stress, disease, summer heat and winter freeze.  For two years, scientists and technicians have been successful in scaling up algae from the carboys to 40-foot, then 100-foot, and finally 300-foot oval ponds.

Once the algae mature in the ponds, it’s sent to an industrial centrifuge that separates the algae from the water, creating a thick algae paste. That paste is fed into a test pilot extractor that uses eco-friendly solvents to crack open the algae cells and release oil – green crude.

Sapphire will soon open a 300-acre in 2012.  It will be the largest algae biofuel test plant in the nation.  They expect to produce 1 million gallons of algae biofuel per year – an industry record.  Once Sapphire can create even larger quantities of green crude, they believe the cost of creating an algae fuel will begin approaching the cost of oil.  Stay tuned to see if their plan creates a viable renewable fuel for our future.

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Category: Biology, Energy, Environment

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Gary Hochman

About the Author ()

Gary is a senior producer at NET Television. He’s produced documentaries worldwide, bringing science to audiences through TV, the web, museums, and schools. Gary has twice received the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award. His recent documentary, NOVA: Secrets Beneath The Ice, examines how researchers explore, drill and prospect to detect how Antarctica’s climate history can forecast Earth’s global climate future. His national productions include: NOVA: Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land, NOVA: Buried In Ash, NOVA: Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines, Behind Lab Doors, Jungle Under Glass, Profit the Earth, Sexuality and Aging, and Seeking the Real Jesse James.
  • Anonymous

    DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM AND ALGAE RESEARCHERS NEED TO BE INVESTIGATED!

    Solydra story is opening a huge can of worms at the DOE LOAN GURANTEE LOAN PROGRAM. Its not just about the Solar loan guarantee program. Look at all the millions in fees collected by the DOE LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM with projects 20% completed. Also, an audit needs to be done on DOE GRANTS to individuals from the DOE that are now working in private industry. Very incestuous! There needs to be an audit on each individual loan program for amount funded and results!

    The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over the last 50 years on algae research. To date, nothing has been commercialized by any algae researcher.

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding more grants for algae research to keep algae researchers employed at universities for another 50 years?

    In business, you are not given 50 years to research anything. The problem is in the Congressional Mandate that says the DOE can only use taxpayer monies on algae research, NOT algae production in the US. So far, research has not got the US off of foreign oil for the last 50 years!

    A Concerned Taxpayer

  • http://science.kqed.org nate wennergren

    Interesting