The future of domestic renewable fuel production could be a bright one, if the work of Algenol is scaled up to commercial levels, because the company can already produce continuous yields of 8000 gallons of algae biofuels per acre per year, without using any arable land that would be better suited to food production.
Biofuels are a controversial topic for some environmentalists, because for certain feedstock crops, such as corn, the benefits of producing ethanol biofuel on arable land may not outweigh the negative impacts, such as water use, for the yields they get (for corn, it’s in the neighborhood of 420 gallons of fuel per acre per year).
But with algae biofuel, the yields of fuel per acre are much higher, and don’t require taking land out of food production or consuming vast amounts of water for each gallon of biofuel produced. In fact, Algenol’s process, which begins with salt water, actually produces 1.4 gallons of clean water for each gallon of fuel, so this algae-based fuel could end up being a much greener and cheaper fuel than any other type of biofuel.
The Algenol process is a modular, scalable system which uses their proprietary flexible plastic film photobioreactors (PBR) to grow the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) with salt water and carbon dioxide, which the algae convert via photosynthesis into “sugars” (pyruvate) using sunlight. The company’s Direct to Ethanol process yields a biofuel with an 80% lower carbon footprint than gasoline, and has the added benefit of using a byproduct of other industrial processes, carbon dioxide, to produce a clean fuel (one metric tonne of carbon dioxide fed into the Algenol process produces around 144 gallons of fuels).
“On one wet acre of algal cultivation Algenol can produce around 8,000 gallons of liquid fuels with a majority gallons of ethanol, 500 gallons of jet ultra-low sulfur diesel, 380 gallons of gasoline and 315 gallons of jet fuel. This is a net production around 8,000 gallons of fuel products on a single acre of land, which makes Algenol’s technology the most sophisticated, advanced and environmentally friendly process for fuel production in the world. This compares favorably to corn at 420 gallons per acre per year.” – Algenol
Although most cars on the road already run on an ethanol blend fuel (10% ethanol, or E10), there are an increasing number of Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) that can run on high ethanol blends (up to 85% ethanol, or E85), but one big issue that keeps this renewable biofuel from being more widely used is the lack of availability of cheaper ethanol. And that’s where Algenol comes in, because with their process, and their goal of producing as much as 20 billion gallons per year of low cost ethanol by 2033, we could see more and more drivers choosing to fuel up with algae-based ethanol.