In the wake of rising oil prices and depleted oil fields, several companies in Colorado are focused on alternative energy solutions, and one Fort Collins company is using an unlikely source to create petroleum: algae.
The tiny plants can be difficult to work with — temperatures must be constant and invasive species can fill the tanks, but Solix Biofuels thinks it has a process to cost-effectively mass-produce oil derived from algae.
“We’re facing two global challenges: depletion of our petroleum reserves and buildup of greenhouse gases,” said Bryan Willson, director of Colorado State University’s engines and energy conversion laboratory, part of a partnership with Solix to create the technology necessary to produce oil from algae. “This process harnesses photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide and energy captured from the sun into an economical petroleum substitute.”
Proponents of “algae into oil” say the process makes sense. Unlike corn or other biofuels, algae can be harvested daily and can produce 100 times more oil per acre than conventional crops.
“It’s a plausible alternative,” said Al Darzins, group manager and principal scientist for the National Bioenergy Center, part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. “We did research on algae from 1978 to 1996 when the DOE (Department of Energy) moved funding to focus more on ethanol as a biofuel.”
Much less land is needed to cultivate algae, Darzins said. At current levels — algae can produce about 1,200 barrels of oil a day — a company would need 4 million acres of land to replace the 5 billion gallons of jet fuel used annually.
“That’s a huge difference than with crops like soybeans, which currently take up 74 million acres of land,” he said. “And soybeans only create 48 gallons of fuel per acre.”
Scientists are trying create algae that are capable of producing 10,000 gallons of fuel per acre. Once that happens, oil from algae will be much more profitable.
Solix opened December and is building a photo-bioreactor system, which could meet the demand of U.S. consumption of diesel fuel — about 4 million barrels a day.
Solix technology uses the sun to grow algae, capture the carbon dioxide and create “bio-crude.” Through reducing the costs of energy input and initial capital expenses, algae biofuels can be competitive with petroleum fuels.
“You’d think growing algae would be easy,” said Doug Henston, CEO of Solix. “It’s everywhere, it’s places you don’t want it. But it isn’t. Growing for a commercial yield is not easy. You have to grow a lot of biomass to produce the lipids and that takes work. The secret is how to do it on a cost-effective basis.”
The process is water-intensive, Darzins said, and that’s one of the drawbacks. But algae will grow in saline environments, and many underground aquifers are saline.
Solix isn’t making biodiesel — just supplying the crude materials for other companies.
“It doesn’t matter what type of algae is going to be used,” Henston said. “Our technology will work for it to create biofuels.”
The company’s bio-crude will be refined into biodiesel for specific engines, meaning that it doesn’t compete with ethanol research to replace gasoline-powered vehicles.
Darzins said that the future for energy is in biofuels — ethanol as well as algae-created biofuel. And he believes the future is close at hand.
“NREL has a goal from the DOE to make a cost-competitive ethanol by 2012,” he said. “And they want to have 60 billion gallons created by 2030. There is a lot of activity out there, companies interested in these alternative fuels.”
DuPont and BP are researching a second generation biofuel, he said. Getting oil from terrestrial vegetable crops is possible, and in the future, he believes it will be profitable.
“The answer is probably going to be a mixture of ideas — wind, solar, biofuels,” Darzins said. “There are a lot of companies established right now to bring some type of vegetable-based fuel to the market. The problem is cost-effectiveness, and we’re probably five or 10 years away. The healthy activity is a positive sign.”