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Biotech Earth Power

Novel Algae Fuel-Farming Method Gets Big Backing 176 176

Al writes "Dow Chemical has given its backing to a Florida startup called Algenol Biofuels that hopes to produce commercial quantities of ethanol directly from algae without the need for fresh water or agricultural lands. Dozens of companies are trying to produce biofuels from algae, mostly by growing and harvesting the microorganisms to extract their oil. Algenol has chosen instead to genetically enhance certain strains of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, to convert as much carbon dioxide as possible into ethanol using a process that doesn't require harvesting to collect the fuel. Algenol's bioreactors are troughs covered by a dome of semitransparent film and filled with salt water that has been pumped in straight from the ocean. The photosynthetic algae growing inside are exposed to sunlight and fed a stream of carbon dioxide from Dow's chemical production units. The goal is to produce 100,000 gallons of ethanol annually."
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Novel Algae Fuel-Farming Method Gets Big Backing

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  • by afidel (530433) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @05:42PM (#28723223)
    But less than 2,400 barrels of ethanol (~1,600 barrels of oil) is such a small drop in the bucket as to be laughable (The US consumes ~21M barrels a day!). Of course scale it up and feed it the output of some GW scale coal plants and you are starting to make at least some impact.
  • Re:Awesome to hear! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by schmidt349 (690948) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @05:42PM (#28723229)
    Isn't Dow part of the corn lobby? [dowagro.com]
  • by wonkavader (605434) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @05:45PM (#28723265)

    From TFA: "Every gallon of ethanol made creates one gallon of fresh water out of salt water."

    This sounds interesting. If this can be cheaply scaled up, it sounds like coastal towns all over the developing world would want to become gas providers for more inland towns -- it solves their water problem at the same time as it solves their cash flow problem.

    I suspect there is a lot of distillation in the process as well, to purify the alcohol. So this sort of system would couple well with hot equator sun and passive solar systems.

    All this makes me wonder: how much human waste can you pour into the system to fertilize the algae? Can this system be used to solve that problem, too?

    And what do you do with the algae? Once you have a full tank, you just want to maintain the status quo, but the algae will continue to reproduce. Could the excess turn into an animal feed?

  • The 3 Steps (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 16, 2009 @05:47PM (#28723277)

    1)make a carbon-dioxide sequestering device.
    2)transfer CO2 to algae ethanol farm

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @05:56PM (#28723389) Journal
    ... this could turn out to be the one that will allow us to tell the OPEC to go drink their own oil.
  • Re:Awesome to hear! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @06:01PM (#28723453) Journal
    I agree this type of stuff is the least worst choice, but something about genetically modified bacteria designed to produce fuel, in the ocean gives me the creeps.

    It is producing alcohol. It is spending a part of its energy budget into producing alcohol, which is totally useless for reproduction and survival. Thus out in the wild it will be swamped out by the regular bacteria. Remember the currently bacteria living in the ocean have been fighting it out for some 3 billion years and they are as fine tuned to optimum as they can get. Any deviation from it is likely to fall at a suboptimal point in the fitness landscape. Any large deviation like producing alcohol is really a saltation. It will land it so far off the starting point in the fitness landscape it is likely to be much much lower than optimum.

  • gene swapping (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Gary W. Longsine (124661) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @06:45PM (#28724009) Homepage Journal
    Everywhere we look, we see single-celled organisms swapping genes. I'm just sayin'.
  • by nevergleam (900375) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @07:14PM (#28724333)

    I was listening to NPR's All Things Considered yesterday (7/15/09) and they had a profile on a California start-up developing algae-sourced fuel in partnership with Exxon-Mobil.

    Oil companies aren't stupid. They invest heavily in all of the R&D for these alternative sources of fuel so they can oligopolize it when any of the research produces something practical.

  • by SirGarlon (845873) on Friday July 17, 2009 @07:38AM (#28727791)

    It sounds too good to be true.

    It is. The CO2 from the coal-fired plant would not go away. It would be converted into ethanol and then released back as CO2 when the ethanol was burned.

    The reason some people are so excited about bio-fuels is they are supposedly "carbon neutral." They take CO2 out of the atmosphere, then release it back when burned. If one were to use CO2 from coal combustion instead, then the CO2 stored in the alcohol is coming out of the ground. In other words, inserting algae into the coal -> atmosphere chain does not change the carbon balance, only interrupts it.

    It is possible that adding algae into the chain could make energy production more efficient (more joules of energy per ton of total CO2 emissions) and may still be worth doing.

    My concern is that the coal plant owner would convince the general public (who by and large do not understand such basic scientific laws as conservation of mass) that their CO2 is a "green energy source" and therefore should not be taxed/capped as a greenhouse gas. In other words, using coal exhaust to feed the algae is basically playing a shell game -- "which one has the CO2 under it now?"

    The point to remember is that bio-fuels do not provide a net benefit to CO2 reduction. Ever. They're simply carbon neutral or approximately so.

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