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Fuel may eventually go green -- with algae

Amid high petroleum prices, scientists are racing to develop an alternative from the fast-growing plant.

October 05, 2008|Arthur Max | Associated Press

BORCULO, NETHERLANDS — Set amid cornfields and cow pastures in eastern Holland is a shallow pool rapidly turning green with algae that is harvested for animal feed, skin treatments, biodegradable plastics and, with increasing interest, biofuel.

In a warehouse 120 miles southwest, a bioreactor of clear plastic tubes is producing algae in pressure-cooker fashion that its manufacturer hopes will one day power jet aircraft.

Experts say it will be years, maybe a decade, before this simplest of all plants can be efficiently processed for fuel. But algae could go a long way toward easing the world's energy needs and responding to global warming.

Algae is the slimy stuff that clouds your home aquarium and gets tangled in your feet in a lake or ocean. It can grow almost everywhere there is water and sunlight, and under the right conditions it can double its volume within hours. Scientists and industrialists agree that the potential is huge.

"This is the ultimate fast-growing organism," said Peter van den Dorpel, chief operating officer of AlgaeLink, which makes bioreactors for speeding reproduction. "Algae is lazy. It eats carbon dioxide and produces oxygen." It has no roots, no leaves, no shoots. "It grows so fast because it has nothing else to do. It just swims in the water."

Farming algae doesn't require much space or good cropland, so it avoids the fuel-for-food dilemma that has plagued first- and second-generation biofuels, such as corn, rapeseed and palm oil.

It can grow in fresh water, polluted water, seawater or farm runoff. It can purify sewage by feeding on the nitrogen and phosphates in human waste.

And it is rich in oil. The most common types farmed today have an oil content of 30%, and some have 70% or more.

Algae also consumes nearly twice its weight in carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas that is discharged by vehicles, power plants and many heavy industries.

Seeking to cut its carbon emissions, the European Union last year mandated that 20% of its energy must come from renewable sources by 2020, up from 8.5% now.

Scientists estimate that airlines are to blame for at least 2% of man-made carbon emissions, which could be sharply reduced by algae-based aviation fuel.

One promising idea in climate change technology focuses on capturing carbon from industry and storing it harmlessly in the ground. But algae farms can put that carbon to good use.

"Capturing CO2 is the easiest element" in algae production, said Carel Callenbach, director of Ingrepro Micro Ingredients, which operates the largest algae farms in Europe, producing 80 tons a year.

Companies have been making biodiesel from algae for years, Callenbach said, but there's no money in the fuel. It is expensive to make, and so far it cannot be produced in commercial quantities like ethanol or some other biofuels.

But now, spurred by profit-busting increases in petroleum prices, Boeing Co. and some airlines are exploring whether algae can be refined economically to a kerosene-grade fuel to run their fleets. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has contracted with AlgaeLink and other companies to scout prospects.

"The advantage is that it can be used in the present structure. You don't have to totally rebuild airplanes," said Nanke Kramer, a KLM spokeswoman. She said that KLM had no results yet from its initial experiments, and that it was too early to say whether aviation fuel would be feasible or when the first flight tests would take place.

Rene Wijffels, a professor of bioprocess engineering at Wageningen University and Research Center in the Dutch town of Wageningen, said he did a feasibility study last year for an energy company on algae for fuel and was surprised by the results.

"We found the costs were high but not as high as we thought." At $3.20 a pound, he said, "it was too expensive for a biofuel, but not that far away."

Biofuel production is shackled by two factors: the limited availability of nutrients and an unfavorable energy balance. "If you use the present technology, you will put in more energy than you get out," Wijffels said.

Those problems can be solved, but it will take time and investment, he said.

The race to make gas from goo is on around the world. Industries, institutes and universities from Argentina and Brazil to New Zealand are pouring millions of dollars into new technologies. In the United States, Arizona State University is trying to develop an aviation fuel, Brunswick Community College in North Carolina is exploring ways to extract oil from algae with ultrasonic waves, and dozens more facilities are sorting out which of the hundreds of thousands of algae types bloom fastest with the richest attainable oil.

The Netherlands, a country twice the size of Massachusetts, has long been ahead in farming technology and has one of the world's highest crop yields. It has as many barnyard animals as it does people -- 16 million -- and it is the world's second-largest exporter of agricultural products, after the United States.

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