The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced $9 million in funding for research into the use of algae that occur naturally in seawater to produce a sustainable twofer: renewable algae biofuel and algae fodder for cattle, too. Hey, make that a threefer: studies have found that an algae diet can reduce methane emissions from cows, which is a major source of greenhouse gasses.
The funds will go to a Hawaii-based group called Cellana, LLC Consortium. The use of naturally ocurring algae is an interesting twist on current research, much of which is focused on engineering new strains of algae for biofuels. It’s also interesting because the consortium leader, Cellana, is a joint venture of renewable energy startup HR BioPetroleum and oil industry giant Shell – yes, that Shell. I guess biofuels makes strange bedfellows but if it gets the job done, let’s do it.
Cellana and Sustainable Biofuel from Algae
Cellana’s pilot plant in Hawaii uses garden variety marine microalgae (well, not just any algae — it’s carefully selected from thousands of potential candidates), cultivated in open seawater ponds. From a sustainability perspective, the use of saltwater species is noteworthy in the context of concerns over the future of global freshwater supplies. After extracting algal oil for biofuel, the process yields quantities of biomass containing protein and carbohydrates, 100% of which can be used as animal feed, primarily as a replacement for fishmeal. The federal grant will go to tweak the process in order to optimize the production efficiency, which is needed in order to design commercial scale facilities without overwhelming available supplies of land on which to site them. The value-added potential from sales of animal feed could also help make large scale facilities commercially viable, even if the biofuel feedstock itself is pricier than petroleum products.
Many Roads to Sustainable Algae Biofuel
Writer Eric Wesoff provides a comprehensive overview of algae biofuel’s rocky road, starting with Jimmy Carter’s 1978 initiative. He points out that animal feed is just one of several value-added potentials in algae biofuel production, which would include cosmetics, nutrition supplements, and specialty oils that could be used in foods destined for human consumption, but also notes that significant technological and operational hurdles remain. At least one of those hurdles, though, seems to be on the verge of fading away: researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have identified a protein that keeps green algae from overdosing on sunlight during photosynthesis. The discovery could lead to low-cost production methods, by eliminating the need for a bioreactor and by enabling the cultivation of algae in high efficiency, closed conditions rather than in open ponds.
Image: Algae by suavehouse113 on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.