Is Algae the Way to a Sustainable Future?

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After reading an article on the future of energy conservation today my views of a little green plant I regarded as nothing more than pond litter were certainly changed. Everyone is familiar with Algae, and probably won’t be surprised to hear its one of the top fifty fastest growing plants in the world. What did surprise me was hearing that the plant is being touted as the “ultimate in renewable energy”.

Surprising still is the notion that harnessing the energy potential of Algae is not a new idea and most energy projects use ponds to grow it. But it is Texas, the US state known more in the past for oil reserves, that is at the forefront of a new idea in how to harness the energy the plant contains.

The reason that Algae is being seen as the solution to renewable energy is that over half of its weight is made up of oil. This means that the the lipid oil can be extracted and used to make biodiesel for vehicles. The fact that the plant is fast growing plant therefore means increased yields.

The problem up until now has been the volume of Algae that can be harvested, as when grown in pond the yield is dependent on the surface area of the pond it is grown in.

“A pond has a limited amount of surface area for solar absorption” – Glen Kertz, president and CEO of Valcent Products

This problem has been circumvented by Valcent, a company that has embarked upon a $5 million joint venture with Canadian alternative energy company Global Green Solutions.

Valcent has developed a closed, vertical system that grows the Algae in rows of moving plastic bags; a patented system called Vertigro.

“By going vertical, you can get a lot more surface area to expose cells to the sunlight. It keeps the algae hanging in the sunlight just long enough to pick up the solar energy they need to produce, to go through photosynthesis” – Glen Kertz, president and CEO of Valcent Products

Valcent has stated that using this method of production it can produce 100,000 gallons of Algae oil annually per acre, compared to 30 gallons from corn and 50 gallons from soybeans.

The US government has researched methods of Algae production in the past, and between 1978 and 1996 the US Department of Energy studied the economic viability of such a system growing Algae in open ponds in California, Hawaii, and in Roswell, New Mexico. The outcome was that such a system could never compete with fossil fuels, a decision taken at a time when the price of oil was $20 barrel.

It seems that Valcent have reopened the research with over twenty patents to protect their ideas, much of which involves experiments to see which type of algae produces which type of fuel. With over 65,000 known algae species it could be that one specimen produces fuel more suited for jet planes than another.

Interesting stuff, but with substantial use of biofuels still 5 to 10 years away I’m sure we will hear plenty more about alternative renewable energy sources in the near future.

                    

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