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Discussion in 'Plants: In the News' started by Junglekeeper, Jun 12, 2008.
Algenol trains algae to turn carbon into ethanol.
Thanks for the link.
Producing fuel from algae is a very attractive and logical idea. After all, essentially all the oil and gas we use is derived from the fossil remains of algae. However, I am deeply sceptical of the current rash of algae>fuel solutions. I spent a large part of my career researching algae and algal production systems - not to produce fuel but other higher value products.
In theory, algae> fuel production systems look very attractive and productive, but there are enormous problems when you try to scale up the production (=culture)system. I think that an analysis of most of the current proposals would show that the promoters are extrapolating from the results that they obtained with very small systems (perhaps only a few metres squared) up to many hectares (or acres). Also you often find that people extrapolate from their best results obtained in very short trials (days/weeks) and not from realistic average data obtained over a year or years.
To highlight some of the problems, perhaps referring only to things that gardeners can easily relate to:
1. As I mention above there will be good years and bad years as in all farming/ horticultural endeavours. This will make it financially unattractive as a very large capital investment is needed - perhaps 1000 - 10,000 x that needed for agricultural biofuel production.
2. pH. Algae are productive over only a small pH range. As with higher plants different species have different optima. The problems and costs associated with pH control in large systems are significant.
3. Weeds. There are weed species of algae. To maintain your production you need to control the species composition of your culture. This is really difficult in large scale sytems. A solution may be the use of herbicides combined with GMO algae... do we want to go there?
4. Pests and diseases. There are plenty of algal diseases out there and lots of microscopic animals out there which like to eat algae. Control is easy in small systems but is really really difficult in large systems .
5. Water. Algae need lots of water. This will not be problem with marine algae- there is a lot of seawater out there.However, most of these projects involve freshwater or brackish water species. In these cases, large volumes of water will be required to replace that lost by evaporation - either using precious freshwater or depleting (mining) fossil brackish water.
There are a lot of other issues which would need to be addressed before economic large-scale algal systems would be successful and economic.
I will not say that it is impossible, but I do not believe there will be an amazing breakthrough as most of these promoters suggest. Rather, I think there will be slow progress with incremental improvements over a scale of years/decades. Perhaps it will never be worthwhile.
Hopefully -I'm wrong!!
Thanks for shedding light on some of the challenges facing this endeavor, Brian. I hope they can be overcome so as to make this method of production viable.