Out of all the clean energy options in development, it is algae-based biofuel that most closely resembles the composition of the crude oil that gets pumped out from beneath the sea bed. Much of what we know as petroleum was, after all, formed from these very microorganisms, through a natural heat-facilitated conversion that played out over the course of millions of years. Now, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, have discovered a way to not only replicate, but speed up this "cooking" process to the point where a small mixture of algae and water can be turned into a kind of crude oil in less than an hour. Besides being readily able to be refined into burnable gases like jet fuel, gasoline or diesel, the proprietary technology also generates, as a byproduct, chemical elements and minerals that can be used to produce electricity, natural gas and even fertilizer to, perhaps, grow even more algae. It could also help usher in algae as a viable alternative; an analysis has shown that implementing this technique on a wider scale may allow companies to sell biofuel commercially for as low as two dollars a gallon.
"When it comes down to it, Americans aren't like Europeans who tend to care more about reducing their carbon footprint," says lead investigator Douglas C. Elliott, who's researched alternative fuels for 40 years. "The driving force for adopting any kind of fuel is ultimately whether it's as cheap as the gasoline we're using now."
Scientists have long been intrigued by the laundry list of inherent advantages algae boasts over other energy sources. The U.S. Department of Energy, for instance, estimates that scaling up algae fuel production to meet the country's day-to-day oil consumption would take up about 15,000 square miles of land, roughly the size of a small state like Maryland. In comparison, replacing just the supply of diesel produced with bio-diesel from soybeans would require setting aside half of the nation's land mass.
Besides the potential for much higher yields, algae fuel is still cleaner than petroleum, as the marine plants devour carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Agriculturally, algae flourishes in a a wide range of habitats, from ocean territories to wastewater environment. It isn't hazardous like nuclear fuel, and it is biodegradable, unlike solar panels and other mechanical interventions. It also doesn't compete with food supplies and, again, is similar enough to petrol that it can be refined just the same using existing facilities.
“Ethanol from corn needs to be blended with gas and modified vegetable oil for use with diesel," says Elliott. "But what we're making here in converting algae is more of a direct route that doesn't need special handling or blending."
Or, as algae researcher Juergen Polle of Brooklyn College puts it: "We cannot fly planes with ethanol. We need oil," he tells CBS News.
But while the infrastructure for corn-based ethanol production has expanded to the extent that most cars on the road run on gasoline blends comprised of 10 percent biofuel, the ongoing development of algae fuel has progressed ever-so glacially since the initial spark of interest in the 1980s. Industry experts attribute this languishing to the lack of a feasible method for producing algae fuel running as high as 10 dollars a gallon, according to a report in the New York Times. However, the promise of oil from algae was tantalizing enough that ExxonMobil, in 2009, enlisted the expertise of world renowned bioengineer Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics lab to fabricate a genetic strain of lipid-rich algae, as a means to offset the expense of cultivating and processing the substance into a commercially attractive resource. Yet, despite investing $600 million into a considerably ambitious endeavor, the project was beset with "technical limitations," forcing the company to concede earlier this year that algae fuel is “probably further” than 25 years away from becoming mainstream.
The hydrothermal liquefaction system that Elliott's team developed isn't anything new. In fact, scientists tinkered with the technology amid an energy crisis during the 1970s as a way to gasify various forms of biomass like wood, eventually abandoning it a decade later as the price of gasoline returned to more reasonable levels. PNNL's lab-built version is, however, "relatively newer," and designed simply to demonstrate how replacing cost-intensive practices like drying the algae before mixing in chemicals with a streamlined approach makes the entire process much more cost-effective across all phases. Elliott explains, for example, that the bulk of the expenditures are spent on raising algae, which is either grown in what’s called an open-pond system, similar to natural environments, or in well-controlled conditions found in closed-loop systems. The open-pond system isn't too expensive to run, but it tends to yield more contaminated and unusable crops while artificial settings, where algae is farmed inside clear closed containers and fed sugar, are pricey to maintain.
"People have this slightly inaccurate idea that you can grow algae anywhere just because they'll find it growing in places like their swimming pool, but harvesting fuel-grade algae on a massive scale is actually very challenging," Elliott says. “The beauty of our system is you can put in just about any kind of algae into it, even mixed strains. You can grow as much as you can, any strain, even lower lipid types and we can turn it into crude."
Forbes energy reporter Christopher Helman has a good description of how this particular hydrothermal liquefaction technique works:
"You start with a source of algae mixed up with water. The ideal solution is 20% algae by weight. Then you send it, continuously, down a long tube that holds the algae at 660 degrees Fahrenheit and 3,000 psi for 30 minutes while stirring it. The time in this pressure cooker breaks down the algae (or other feedstock) and reforms it into oil.
Given 100 pounds of algae feedstock, the system will yield 53 pounds of 'bio-oil' according to the PNNL studies. The oil is chemically very similar to light, sweet crude, with a complex mixture of light and heavy compounds, aromatics, phenolics, heterocyclics and alkanes in the C15 to C22 range."
"It's a way of mimicking what happens naturally over an unfathomable length of time," he adds. "We're just doing it much, much faster."
Elliott's team has licensed the technology to the Utah-based startup Genifuel Corporation, which hopes to build upon the research and eventually implement it in a larger commercialized framework. He suggests that the technology would need to be scaled to convert roughly 608 metric tons of dry algae to crude per day to be financially sustainable.
"It's a formidable challenge, to make a biofuel that is cost-competitive with established petroleum-based fuels," Genifuel president James Oyler said in a statement. "This is a huge step in the right direction."
Applying The Following Breakthrough Steps Should Finally Yield The Inexpensive Clean Energy of Biofuels potential.
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Algae Extraction from water OriginOil
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In California, OriginOil announced a new company study indicating a potential production cost as low as $2.28/gallon ($0.60/Liter) for gasoline or diesel using a blend of algae and waste feedstocks, using the latest growth, harvesting and fuel conversion technologies from OriginOil and other innovators. OriginOil’s comprehensive model analyzes the entire algae production process at scale, integrating the latest advances in growth, harvesting and fuel conversion.
In the lowest-cost scenario, algae harvested using OriginOil’s Algae Appliance is blended with waste feedstocks and converted onsite to achieve a modeled production cost of $2.28 per gallon for gasoline or diesel. This cost roughly doubles to $5.44/gallon ($1.44/Liter) when using pure algae feedstocks. The model assumes a production footprint of at least 50 hectares (124 acres). Source 'Biofuel Digest'
**Rutgers, which is one of the largest algae research centers in the nation, is taking a different approach to making algal biofuels competitive with petroleum. Falkowski's team is working to genetically modify plant cells to create a more efficient and productive way to derive oil from the autotrophic organism.
"What I'm trying to do here is make algae make oil for us, 1 million times more efficiently -- to compete with the product that's in the ground," Falkowski said.
"Economics doesn't trump nature, nature trumps economics," Falkowski said. "We can't put carbon dioxide back into the ground faster than we can extract it. But we sure as hell can make fossil fuels go away. It's only a matter of will power, it's not a matter of know-how." CBS July 8, 2013, 5:45 AM
BioDiesel Electric Vehicles Today----------------------------------------------------------------
Will the battery be durable enough to compete with the recognized efficient diesel competitors? Time will tell.
Tesla Model 3, $35,000, 250 mile range on a single charge
Even so, clean diesels still need an expensive catalytic-reduction system that injects a solution of urea into the exhaust to mop up the nitrogen oxides. They also need particulate traps to capture the soot. Going to a lower compression ratio avoids much of this. The fuel will be burned without difficulty at the cylinder’s top dead-centre, and the urea-injection system is no longer required.
With its old 1.4-litre diesel engine, the Volkswagen Polo currently holds the record for being the most frugal non-electric car in Europe, with a fuel economy on the combined cycle of just 3.8 litres/100km (equivalent to 61.9 miles per American gallon). The Toyota Prius hybrid? A lowly 20th in the league table of the most economical fuel-sippers, with 4.2 litres/100km, along with higher emissions of carbon dioxide. The 19 cars having better fuel economy than the Prius hybrid are all clean diesels.
Your columnist fully expects the new generation of clean, low-compression diesels to improve fuel-economy by a further 20% or more. That will put diesels on much the same footing—given the way that equivalent miles-per-gallon are calculated for electric vehicles—as many battery-powered vehicles, but without any worries about range or recharging. Roll on the day.
TESLA MOTORS has had great success with its Model S luxury electric car, which has out sold its petrol-powered equivalents since being launched in America last year. Even so, the prospects for battery-powered vehicles generally may never shine quite as bright again. Having had their day in the sun, they may soon be eclipsed by, wait for it, the diesel engine.
American readers will find this idea particularly hard to swallow. Surely not that dirty, noisy, smelly, lumbering lump of a motor that was hard to start in winter? Certainly not. A whole new generation of sprightly diesels—developed over the past few years—bear no resemblance to the clattering Oldsmobile 4.3-litre diesel of the late 1970s, which single-handedly destroyed diesel’s reputation in America for decades.
Later this year Americans will get their first chance to experience what a really advanced diesel is like—and why Europeans opt for diesels over hybrids, plug-in electrics and even petrol-powered cars. The leader of the new pack is the Mazda 6, with the choice of either a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine or a 2.2-litre turbo-charged diesel. The diesel has more than 30% better fuel economy and provides oodles more pulling power. Good as the petrol version is, motorists who choose it over the diesel will miss out on a lot. And Mazda is not the only carmaker with an advanced diesel in the works. Among others, Mitsubishi Motors has been selling cars with a new generation of 1.8-litre and 2.2-litre diesel engines in Europe since 2010. Hedging its bets on hybrids, Toyota has also been testing several radically new diesel designs.
What marks this latest generation of diesel engines from even their “common-rail” predecessors of the late 1990s, let alone their belching ancestors from the 1970s, is the use of a surprisingly low compression ratio of around 14:1 rather than the more usual 16:1 or higher. The reduction in cylinder pressure may sound marginal, but it gives rise to a virtuous cycle of beneficial effects that were previously unavailable.
For a start, the lower cylinder pressure reduces thermal and mechanical stresses in the engine. As a result, the heavy cast-iron block traditionally needed to stop a diesel ripping itself apart can be replaced with a lighter aluminium casting. That trims 25kg (55lb) off the weight of the block of the new Mazda diesel. Lower cylinder pressures mean that pistons, rings, valves, crankshaft and other engine parts can also be made 25% lighter. And because they are weighed down less by the engine, the vehicle’s brakes, suspension and bodywork do not need to be quite so rugged either. All these weight savings translate into greater efficiency. According to Ricardo, an engineering consultancy, every 10% reduction in a family car’s weight boosts its fuel economy by more than 4%.
Another benefit of lower cylinder pressure is that the lighter moving parts in the engine generate less internal friction—improving efficiency still further. And having less inertia, they allow the engine to spin faster and more freely, which also boosts efficiency. Mazda’s new “Skyactiv-D” engine can reach 5,200 revolutions per minute, a figure previously unheard of among road-going diesels. All told, the improvement in engine efficiency more than compensates for any loss of power caused by reducing the diesel’s compression ratio. As it is, diesels start off by being 30-35% more efficient than petrol engines. The new low-compression diesels are likely to be even more so.
There are benefits on the emissions side as well. In a typical diesel engine, ignition is caused not by a set of spark-plugs firing sequentially, but by the heat of the air being squeezed in the cylinders. The timing of this auto-ignition is controlled by the injectors, which squirt precise amounts of fuel under extremely high pressure into each cylinder exactly as needed. For maximum efficiency, this is done just as the pistons arrive at the top of their stroke and the cylinder pressure is at its highest.
Unfortunately, the fuel and air at top dead-centre are rarely mixed as thoroughly as necessary for complete combustion. This incomplete combustion produces soot particles and smog-forming nitrogen oxides—the curse of traditional diesel engines. Modern clean diesels trade some of their power for improved combustion. They do so by delaying the injection of the fuel until the piston begins to move back down the cylinder. The delay and the falling pressure give the fuel a chance to blend with the air better. Source: http://www.economist.com/printedition/2013-09-07