July 21, 2008 at 9:15 am (science-ish, Uncategorized) (algae, alternative metabolic pathway, anthropogenic, atmosphere, B. Greg Mitchell, benefits, bio-feedstock, biodiesel, bioelectricity, biofuels, biomass, biomass energy, bioreactor, business, carbon, carbon cycle, carbon dioxide, carbon flux, celera genomics, chemistry, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, civilization, COX, cropland, crops, desert, economic models, electricity, energy demands, Energy Independence and Security Act, energy independent, energy source, ethanol, farmland, fossil fuel, fossil fuels, fuel, global, Global Green Solutions, green, green energy, green future, Greenfuel, greenfuelonline, greenhouse gas, grow energy, grow fuel, grow oil, harvesting sunlight, human activity, hydrocarbon, hydrogen, hydrogen gap, industrial algae process, industry, infrastructure, internal combusion, IPCC, J. Craig Venter, JCVI, key provisions, lipids, minimal cell, minimum disruption, more with less, Nathan Lewis, national needs, National Renewable Energy Lab, NERL, new scientist, NOX, NREL, oil well, oilgae, oilseeds, palm oil, photo voltaic, photosynthesis, power source, rainforests, rising costs, salty or brackish water, scripps, sewage, smart economy, SOlix Solutions, solution, Sorcerer II, SOX, soybeans, stephen mayfield, sunlight, sustainability, Synthetic Genomics, temperature, terawatts, Tesios Melis, why algae)
This was actually created as a briefing and presentation. Many of the terms and concepts used would be familiar and shared with the intended audience.
Making the Case for Biofuels.
In 2008, with rapidly rising fuels costs from traditional hydrocarbon sources, there is increasing pressure on business and society to provide energy for our national needs, and for our growing and ever power-hungry global civilization. Currently, it is estimated that we use approximately 15 terawatts of electricity globally, much of this being use in the internal combustion engines of modern cars or in electrical power generation from liquid, solid, or gas fossil fuels. Rising costs of power have a cascading effect on all costs in our world, since all processes in the modern world require or rely on electrical powered industrial activities. If we are to keep increasing our energy demands, the cost of power will continue to rise if we continue to rely so heavily on non renewable energy. Some form of replacement power source that can expand with our demand expansion need to be found. This principle is generally known as scalability. For us to grow, we don’t need to merely do “more for less”. It is also crucial that we find new and expandable sources of energy.
There is another factor pushing our need for new energy sources to replace the traditional fossil fuels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has announced that anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases seem to be driving temperatures higher and higher. “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations,” it says. According to the IPCC, this means a greater than 90 % chance. A huge source of this temperature increase is likely to be from carbon and other “greenhouse gases” released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. Whether or not one chooses to agree with the IPCC, it is hard to argue that liberating massive amounts of carbon formerly sequestered into the Earth over geological timescales, in the short span of a few hundred years, is completely benign. There is no question that human activity has changed the carbon cycle in the last 8,000 years.
The following chart shows carbon cycle flux of the earth, with boxes indicating reservoir values and the arrows indicating annual change. Red arrows indicate the changes made by human beings in the time we have been conducting the ecological experiment of civilization.
In addition to the above reasons to investigate alternative fuels and sources of energy, one can include a grab-bag of other agendas and motivations. “The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007”, recently signed by U.S. President George W. Bush may be one. This act mandates the inclusion of biofuel into the traditional gasoline available at the pumps, in part the key provisions include “Near-term usage requirement goes to 9 billion gallons in 2008 and 15.2 billion gallons in 2011” and “expands mandate for U.S.-grown biofuels such as ethanol, to 36 billion gallons in 2022, versus current levels near 6.5 billion gallons”. Other similar provisions in Canada and Europe seem to suggest a shift of public and governmental direction in the use of energy.
(The “The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” seeks to provide energy security for the United States against uncontrollable import irregularities.)
There are a number of interesting proposed methods to supply this power, but due to the above mentioned legislations, as well as the popular and media interest, I will look at biofuels directly. It is also my personal feeling that biofuels can be made to work well in replacing traditional energy sources and providing a crucial bridge from current technologies to a truly energy independent future.
Biofuels, in particular biodiesel, can be made to work with existing technology and using existing infrastructure, which is an important step since an ‘energy-constrained’ future also means a future in which large scale infrastructure change is more difficult. They provide a solution with minimum disruption that can be easy fit into our existing economic models. They are also, as I will demonstrate, capable of remediating the negative impact we have already caused on the biosphere that is condemned by the IPCC report.
Challenges posed by biofuels
There are a number of problems associated with the wide scale use of biofuels. One of these is the ecological damage they can cause when unregulated market forces drive economic activity that is destructive to the ecology that we seek to protect. According to the CBC:
“Rainforests are now being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, a rich source of biodiesel. The problem is particularly serious in Malaysia where the palm oil industry began in 1917. The country hopes to apply its experience to meet the rising demand for biofuels coming from Europe and India.”
This pattern is repeated in the Amazon and other tropical forest areas around the world, as poor nations attempt to cash in on the high price of energy and food. This pattern is not new, however it is exacerbated to supply energy when every newly cleared section of forest becomes a potential “oil well” for vegetable and cellulose energy. The ‘vanishing rainforest’ problem of the 1980s has not disappeared, in fact it has accelerated. Much of the worlds forest cover has already disappeared, as evidenced on the following map created by Canadian Geographic:
Converting our already farmed cropland into “Oil well” can also have very negative consequences, as we have witnessed in the lead up to summer 2008. Bob Macdonald of the CBC observes:
“In North America and Mexico, another disturbing trend is developing: The use of corn as biofuel stock. Other than the fact that it takes a lot of energy to grow corn in the first place, corn is food. With the rising threat of droughts brought on by climate change, and a growing world population, how long will our thirst for fuel go before we’re putting food in vehicles instead of mouths?”
So, biofuels threaten to exacerbate already current problems and negate any gains they might make with unseen offsets and consequences. Is there a way to keep the benefits of plant-based fuel solutions while mitigating or controlling the consequences?
Algae is one of the oldest known forms of life on earth, and it has a wide variety of species filling a wide variety of ecological niches. Algal farming has been practiced by humans for thousands of years, and is currently farmed industrially in the west to provide nutrient and health products as well as various chemical food applications. It is known to be a prolific grower, and a primary producer getting its energy directly from the sun. The photosynthesis performed by algae gives us an opportunity to tap the enormous power of the sun to meet our current and future fuel needs.
“While a number of bio-feedstock are currently being experimented for biodiesel (and ethanol) production, algae have emerged as one of the most promising sources especially for biodiesel production, for two main reasons (1) The yields of oil from algae are orders of magnitude higher than those for traditional oilseeds, and (2) Algae can grow in places away from the farmlands & forests, thus minimizing the damages caused to the eco- and food chain systems. There is a third interesting reason as well: Algae can be grown in sewages and next to power-plant smokestacks where they digest the pollutants and give us oil!”
I will break down this claim and see it if stands up to facts.
To begin with, how productive can algae farming be? Algae is a single celled organism, its not carrying around a lot of superfluous specialized equipment. It is extremely efficient at using light and available nutrients to its advantage. Its growth and productivity is 30 to 100 times higher than crops like soybeans. It has the potential to be remarkably productive.
Secondly, it is claimed that “Algae production does not compete with agriculture. Algae production facilities are closed and do not require soil for growth, use 99% less water than conventional agriculture, and can be located on non-agricultural land far from water. Since the whole organism converts sunlight into oil, algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two-car garage than an entire football field of soybeans.” We will explore this further later, to see if other scientists agree. As for the third claim, “Algae thrive on a high concentration of carbon dioxide. And nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant of power plants, is a nutrient for the algae. Algae production facilities can thus be fed exhaust gases from fossil fuel power plants, and even breweries, to significantly increase productivity and clean up the air.” This is in fact one of the impetuses that lead us to look at biofuels in the first place, that is their potential to clean up the environment and scrub our industrial activities. Algae live specifically on the gas that we would like to remove from effluent. (Algae LIVE on CO2)
The comparisons between algae productivity and other biofuel feedstocks can be summed up as follows:
Yield of Various Plant Oils
Crop Oil in Liters per hectare
The numbers represented here seem to be a fairly accurate representation of much of the literature I surveyed. The numbers for algae may be slightly on the high side, and probably represent a “bioreactor” factory process. Nevertheless all the sources seem to agree that algae is extremely prolific and productive, with up to 50% of their weight taken up by lipids, depending on the species.
Here we must address scalability. Is it possible to grow enough algae in North America to supply our needs? After all, as Nathan Lewis has pointed out, using traditional biofuels it would take a significant portion of the Earths total biotic production to power our civilization.
According to some, the growing area needed using an ‘open pond’ system is actually quite reasonable when compared to other crops. Information from the University of New Hampshire indicates the following:
“NREL‘s research showed that one quad (7.5 billion gallons) of biodiesel could be produced from 200,000 hectares of desert land (200,000 hectares is equivalent to 780 square miles, roughly 500,000 acres), if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH). In the previous section, we found that to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles.”
Or approximately 1/8th of the size of the Sonora desert in the United States. This compares favorably not only to other crops considered for biofuels, but also with space needs for projects like a Photo Voltaic power system proposed by Mr. Lewis.
B. Greg Mitchell is a Research Biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He works on algae, and has an apparently keen interest in using algae as a renewable energy. According to him,
“Soybean Based Biodiesel will never contribute more than a few percent of the possible US diesel fuel market… (however) approximately 20-30 million acres of algae would supply ALL U.S. transportation fuel”
This is a little less optimistic than the previous estimate we looked at from University of New Hampshire, which for comparison converts to 9.6 million acres. However, they are clearly in the same ballpark. B. Greg Mitchell goes on to detail what he considers to be the biggest benefits of developing an algae feedstock for biofuel production.
Advantages of Algae
• Uses all nutrients, minimizing eutrophication
• Uses underutilized land, e.g. deserts
• Yields >10x those for land plants
• Can grow in salt, or brackish water
• Non-fuel fraction is high in protein
• capture CO2 at point source
• Can produce high yields of – Lipids for biodiesel & starch / polysaccharides for ethanol
You will recall that the University of New Hampshire estimates placed the hypothetical fields in the Sonora desert. This is not merely for comparison; it highlights one of the strengths of algae farming. Namely, that it can be done in conditions that are suboptimal for other agriculture. Algae needs sun, carbon, and water. Just about any water will do, depending on the species.
As noted by B. Greg Mitchell, salty or brackish water is fine so there is no need to divert precious drinking water. So is sewage waste, which algae could actually help clean up by using the carbon and nitrogen found there. Ideally then, water treatment facilities could use algae ponds to help them clean up their waste mimicking services already performed by natural systems. The non fuel components are high in protein, so dead algae could be used as animal feed or even supply more human foods.
We already use oil for food, why not use algae?
So harvest the algae from salt water desert ponds, put it through a digester process like that shown above, and out comes food, fuel, and probably some Ambrosia from Olympus. At least, that’s the model. Is this a reality or a fantasy? Is this kind of progress achievable and if so how close are we?
What we have, what we need.
Stephen Mayfield of the Scripps research Institute (a college of Dr. Mitchells), gives an assessment of where we are at. According to Mayfield, these are the things we need to achieve in order to get to the vision above:
-“We need Bigger and better knowledge base on algae.”
-“We need to identify and characterize a large number of diverse algal species; Genomic, proteomic and metabolic profiles.”
-“We need to develop molecular tools for breeding”
-“We need to develop molecular tools for engineering”
-“We need to develop agricultural practices for algal growth, harvesting, and processing.” i.e. “Industrializing algae”
And this is what we now have:
-“We have many species identified with limited characterization, but showing …fantastic potential.”
-“We already know how to grow algae on a modest scale”
-“We have a few algal genomes sequenced and annotated.”
“We have nuclear and chloroplast transformation for a handful of species.” (engineering)
“We know that algae can be grown at agricultural scale at costs approaching agricultural costs.”
What would an algae feedstock farm business look like?
It turns out that there are already quite a few companies who are developing or have developed what they consider to be a workable business model. One particularly interesting company is Greenfuel technologies.
According to their website,
“Using technology licensed from a NASA project, GreenFuel builds bioreactors–in the shape of 3-meter-high glass tubes fashioned as a triangle–to grow algae. The algae are fed with sunlight, water and carbon-carrying emissions from power plants. The algae are then harvested and turned into biodiesel fuel.”
According to Smart Economy, quoting New Scientist:
“To produce fuel from CO2, the flue gases are fed into a series of transparent “bioreactors”, which are 2 metres high and filled with green microalgae suspended in nutrient-rich water. The algae use the CO2, along with sunlight and water, to produce sugars by photosynthesis, which are then metabolised into fatty oils and protein. As the algae grow and multiply, portions of the soup are continually withdrawn from each reactor and dried into cakes of concentrated algae. These are repeatedly washed with solvents to extract the oil. The algal oil can then be converted into biodiesel through a routine process called transesterification, in which it is processed using ethanol and a catalyst. Enzymes are then used to convert starches from the remaining biomass into sugars, which are fermented by yeasts to produce ethanol.”
(A Greenfuel Bioreactor)
They have a pilot project, which has successfully created biodiesel for local school buses. This process uses a carbon stream straight from a heavy carbon source and ideally it would use the carbon and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, there have been a few design hitches, including a problem with the algae actually growing over abundantly and clogging up the system. Algae deep in the reactor could not get sunlight and died. The Biofuel reactor had to be shut down for redesign, but the company hopes to have it up again shortly.
Another company which shows some promise is Global Green Solutions. They have solved a problem that Greenfuels has encountered, by growing their algae in thin tubes, constantly circulating to allow all the algae to receive the necessary light. Global Green Solutions have a very interesting website, on which can be seen a video of their process in action along with interviews with their scientists explaining the process. They also claim to have various strains of algae which produce for them various types of fuel, such as jet fuel, gasoline, etc.
A third company is Solix Solutions, which has an interesting website that provides a lot of basic information. They are the descendant of the NERL National Renewable Energy Lab Government program in the U.S. Solix has a second generation prototype of a bioreactor which they are currently testing.
It seems that there are a lot of good concepts out there, and some workable proofs-of-concept, but very little that’s ready to roll out right now for a profitable industry. This concern cannot work as a charity. One of the bigger problems is that the algae must themselves be harvested and digested in order to get at the oils they are producing and storing in their systems. In essence, everything we have been talking about up till now has been a ‘crop’ model.
(Industrial Algae Process)
Can we cut out the harvesting and processing altogether? Scientists have known for some time that algae will produce very small amount of hydrogen under certain conditions. Enter Tesios Melis and other new geneticists to rethink the entire process and bring some economy to the whole system.
“Researchers have found a metabolic switch in algae that allows the primitive plants to produce hydrogen gas — a discovery that could ultimately result in a vast source of cheap, pollution-free fuel.”
Tesios Melis at the University of Berkeley discovered this in 2000, experimenting with an algae species called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in the lab. He explains that “an alternative metabolic pathway” exists in the algae to exploit stored energy reserves anaerobically — in the absence of oxygen. A hydrogenase enzyme was activated, splitting large amounts of hydrogen gas from water and releasing it as a byproduct. The algae still doesnt produce all the hydrogen that it should. A “hydrogen gap” exists between what it should be producing, by the laws of chemistry, and what it is. If that hydrogen gap is solved it could boost the hydrogen production up to levels needed to be industrially feasible.
“Switching 100 percent of the algae’s photosynthesis to hydrogen might not be possible.”The rule of thumb is, if we bring that up to 50 percent, it would be economically viable,” Melis says. “With 50 percent capacity, one acre of algae could produce 40 kilograms of hydrogen per day. That would bring the cost of producing hydrogen to $2.80 a kilogram. At this price, hydrogen could compete with gasoline, since a kilogram of hydrogen is equivalent in energy to a gallon of gasoline.”
This is a factory model of algae fuel production, with the algae acting as tiny living factories.
Carbon inà(algae growth)àharvestingàprocessingàfuel
Carbon inà (algae growth and processing) à fuel
Tasios has done some work for another likeminded scientist, Dr. J. Craig Venter. Dr. Venter has been widely regarded in the biosciences community as a saint and a devil. Dr. Venter has made friends, gathered often worshipful attention from the media, and angered a lot of people including his own shareholders who still seem to easily forgive him and flock to the next project.
Venter is the former president and a co-founder of Celera Genomics, famous for running a private version of the Human Genome Project of its own, for economic commercial purposes, using so called “shotgun sequencing” technology. His method widely criticized by the international scientific community who doubted its effectiveness. The aim of the Celera project was to create a database of data to which users could subscribe – for a price. However when Both Celera and the Human Genome project both announced jointly the completion of their projects, much of the criticism stopped. However, giving in to international pressure to reveal their results, Celera failed to recoup much of their investment and Venter was hounded out of his position.
This however did not deter him. He set up the private foundation “J. Craig Venter Institute” and launched a sloop to sail around the world taking surveys of the ocean life. According to the Institute:
“In a quest to unlock these mysteries, the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) launched the Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) Expedition in 2004. Inspired by 19th Century sea voyages like Darwin’s on the H.M.S. Beagle and Captain George Nares on the H.M.S. Challenger, The Sorcerer II circumnavigated the globe for more than two years, covering a staggering 32,000 nautical miles, visiting 23 different countries and island groups on four continents.”
There have been some amazing discoveries made on that trip, the details of which I won’t delve into here. Much of it, however, concerned the most basic of life; bacterial, algal, photosynthetic organisms.
Venter also set up Synthetic Genomics which now leads the world in bioinformatics research, and hard science. Their list of current projects reads like a wish list of future biological technologies. The crown jewel, the centerpiece of his work, is a stripped down “minimal cell”. That is, a cell that is capable of living at the most basic level, with the barest minimum of genes. With this cell, they will then be able to insert any other genes they want, in packages. The combined effect will be like building any custom designed cell you want, out of lego blocks. Want a cell that produces hydrogen? Or any other product you care to name?
(Minimal cell)+(Tasios Melis’ Metabolic Pathway for Hydrogen)+(Photosynthesis)+(Highest available Algae reproduction rates)+(Squid gene for luminosity) = An algae cell that will glow while its delivering you cheap, fast hydrogen from the sun.
Sitting on a salty wastewater pond in the middle of the desert.
Too good to be true? Maybe. But if anybody can deliver on something like this, it’s probably Nobel Laureate, first man to have a full sequence of his own DNA, J. Craig Venter. He says he’ll have it in two years.
Is it worth looking forwards to? Absolutely.
 “Human caused”
 “Nectar of the Gods”
 Stephen Mayfield and B Greg Mitchell can be seen on the video:
“The Biology and Business of Biofuels.” All Stephen Mayfield information was taken from this video.
 Roughly, “Computing in biologic sciences”