Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oil from Algae to power the mining industry!

For millions and millions of years, microscopic organisms, including algae, have been harvesting energy from the sun and, after their death, being buried in the sediments of lakes and on the sea floor.   Over time, the oils in these plants are converted to what we now collect from the petroleum deposits of the world, and that we turn into gasoline, diesel, and other fuels and lubricants.   So it seems sensible to see if algae can be specially grown to provide a renewable fuel source today.

Scientists have identified about 65,000 different species of algae.
And so it is.   Even though there is no established industry to lobby for the uptake of algal oil, there is quite a lot of interest in the idea.   In January of 2009, Continental Airlines flew the first commercial test flight with algal derived jet fuel.   Given their dependence on fuel, the airline industry strongly believes that it can lower its carbon footprint by using algal biofuels.    It makes great sense for the airlines because gas turbine engines can use a wide range of fuels and algal biofuels do not contain the compounds that can freeze most fossil fuels at the low temperatures in which the aircraft operate.   (Kerosene and other jet fuels are specially produced to be able to remain liquid at very low temperatures – but they are expensive)  In the USA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is investing in major research to develop cost competitive military jet fuel – so the cost of algal biofuel – while now relatively high, will come down as the jet fuel demand increases.
The mining industry has a huge dependence on diesel engines – for powering mining equipment and generating electricity, and diesel engines are also able to use a variety of oil products – we have seen the use of treated and recycled vegetable oil already to power road vehicles.    And the potential to use gas turbine / electric power trains in vehicles could expand the options for machinery power as well.   The mining industry should consider the options of algal biofuels in the long term.
Another application of the process could be to use the algae to metabolise fugitive emissions from coal and petroleum fired power stations.   GREENFUEL Technologies Corporation ( is commercialising the process now with CEO Robert Metcalfe’s view being “Why expensively sequester CO2 when it can be profitably recycled.”   However, from my point of view, this kind of technology can have the best effect when used to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and bringing our ongoing need for the convenience of oil based fuels into the short term carbon cycle, essentially removing the carbon from the atmosphere and reburning it for a short term zero effect on atmospheric carbon.   In the future, the process can even start to remediate carbon levels in the atmosphere, as algal oil could be stored underground in old oil reservoirs.
And there are more advantages still.   Algae can be grown in extreme environments: the desert, the high latitudes.   It can be grown in salt water.   In theory, a mining company in the Atacama Desert could use water from the ocean in a processing plant located next to the mine site to produce all of its own liquid fuel requirements with no excess carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
At present, most algal oil is produced in open ponds which use up a lot of land area, however one entrepreneur has designed and piloted a ‘vertical’ system (Vertigro) that increases the surface area of the process exposed to the sun.   Using this process plant physiologist Glen Kurtz, believes he can produce 100,000 gallons of oil a year per acre.

Plant physiologist Glen Kertz believes algae can be competitive as a source for biofuel.

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