Algae farming is a relatively safe bet in the current financial climate. Algae, a sludge colored illuminatingly lime to moss green, has going for it that it can be made anywhere –even in desert climates- and that it can be relatively swiftly adopted. A big negative is that the price of producing one gallon worth of algae based petroleum is still relatively cost inefficient compared to oil. But even at the negative end of this spectrum, there’s masses of potential.
A clever way to exploit the properties of this microscopic organism is what’s being done in Kentucky at the moment. Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) is involved in a $3.5 million project using algae to clean the air of CO2 and other nasty stuff emitted in the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. The project is as simple as it sounds; it cultivates algae to naturally soak up carbon dioxide. The algae grows at rapid speeds and at the end of the day can also be transformed into a liquid fuel. Plus algae also offers a brilliant alternative to burying the carbon dioxide underground, something that is little-tested and could prove hazardous in the long term.
It’s one of the first such projects in the US. In the future, buildings in Kentucky coal-fired power plants could feature vertical columns which would facilitate the passage of flue gases through algae sludges.
Many other, bigger, algae-based renewable gasoline projects are taking off which pioneer processing the gooey sludge at commercial level. Even though there is a massive difference between oil priced at $150 (as it was before the credit crisis kicked in) and the $41 level, the experts say these solutions still make sense. That’s indicative of what’s happening to our communal psyche more than anything else. The understanding that natural resources are finite plus the success of various alternative options are all making great motivating factors here.
With oil prices back in safer territory, you’d expect various alternative forms of energy to be re-evaluated. But since a lot of planning goes into such projects, many of them survived the financial crisis because by the time it struck they´d already been okayed. Now it’s hoped that the future will justify the decisions.
Needless to say that the projects currently underway are aiming to reduce the costs. These are estimated at around $18 to $30 per gallon. The most optimistic projection is that this can be brought down to $1 per gallon. Investors, including Bill Gates, poured $100 million into Sapphire Energy of San Diego to commercially launch algae based biofuel. The company has 80 employees.
And the US Energy Department is reviving a massive project it botched in 1996 to produce algae gasoline on a large scale. The DoE abandoned the project because of the low oil price at the time, but it has recently teamed up with National Laboratory and Chevron. One expert, Eric Jarvis of the National Renewable Energy Lab, says that worldwide several hundred companies are active on the algae-based petrol front. “It has the feel of a gold rush situation,” he told the Louiseville Courier Journal.
There´s another dozen or so of other US based projects which are all listed in this article on CheckBioTech.org. As the projects take off a certain level of competition will ensue. It´s likely that both the price per gallon and the time frame will be major factors in this race. Some insiders say that it will take ten years before commercially viable products will hit the market. Others say this is going to materialize in as little as two years from now. The reason for this massive difference in prediction time is due to the political climate. In one year’s time that landscape will be a lot clearer.