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Algae-Based Transportation Fuels Comes At A Cost
Mark Dunphy, Irish Weather online
New University of Virginia research shows that while algae-based transportation fuels produce high energy output with minimal land use, their production could come with significant environmental burdens.
For farmers looking to maximise profits, algae would produce considerably more transportation energy than canola and switch grass for every hectare planted, and can also be grown on poor-quality marginal land that cannot be easily used to grow food crops such as corn, according to a report by Andres F. Clarens and Lisa M. Colosi, both assistant professors of civil and environmental engineering in the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Mark A. White, professor in the McIntire School of Commerce.
From an environmental impact standpoint, however, algae-based fuel has mixed performance, compared to other biomass sources. Algae-based biodiesel production uses more energy – in the form of petroleum-powered processes – than other biofuels. Additionally, algae-based biodiesel and bioelectricity production processes also require substantial amounts of water and emit more greenhouse gases.
The report, “Environmental Impacts of Algae-Derived Biodiesel and Bioelectricity for Transportation,” is available online on the website of Environmental Science and Technology, a leading environmental research journal and will be published in an upcoming print edition. Hagai Nassau and Eleazer P. Resurreccion, civil and environmental engineering graduate students, contributed to the research.
“We’re looking at the entire landscape of biofuels, and asking ‘What are the options?’” Colosi said.
She hopes the research will inform public policy debates, allowing people to make the best decisions about alternatives to petroleum…
(11 Aug 2011)
The report Environmental Impacts of Algae-Derived Biodiesel and Bioelectricity for Transportation, can be purchased here.
Algae Could Solve World’s Fuel Crisis
Von Philip Bethge, Der Spiegel
Biochemist Dan Robertson’s living gas stations have the dark-green shimmer of oak leaves and are as tiny as E. coli bacteria. Their genetic material has been fine-tuned by human hands. When light passes through their outer layer, they excrete droplets of fuel.
“We had to fool the organism into doing what I wanted it to do,” says Robertson, the head of research at the US biotech firm Joule Unlimited. He proudly waves a test tube filled with a green liquid. The businesslike biochemist works in a plain, functional building on Life Sciences Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His laboratory is sparsely furnished and the ceiling is crumbling. Nevertheless, something miraculous is happening in the lab, where Robertson and his colleagues are working on nothing less than solving the world’s energy problem. They have already created blue algae that produce diesel fuel.
Scientists rave about a new, green revolution. Using genetic engineering and sophisticated breeding and selection methods, biochemists, mainly working in the United States, are transforming blue and green algae into tiny factories for oil, ethanol and diesel.
Betting Millions on Algae
A green algae liquid sloshes back and forth in culture vats and circulates through shiny bioreactors and bulging plastic tubes. The first tests of algae-based fuels are already being conducted in automobiles, ships and aircraft. Investors like the Rockefeller family and Microsoft founder Bill Gates are betting millions on the power of the green soup. “Commercial production of crude oil from algae is the most obvious and most economical possible way to substitute petroleum,” says Jason Pyle of the California-based firm Sapphire Energy, which is already using algae to produce crude oil.
…Large Amounts of CO2 Required
But will the laboratory creations really work as well in open fields as they do in the lab? Calculations show that some algae plants will likely consume more fertilizer and energy per hectare than grain crops. And the carbon dioxide in the air won’t be enough to feed the microalgae. Scientists estimate that a commercial algae fuel plant would require about 10,000 cubic meters of CO2 a day. Whether and how large amounts of the gas could be derived from the exhaust gases of large coal power plants, for example, and then brought to the algae farms, remains unclear.
The farms could also require enormous tracts of land. In a recent article in the journal Science, researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands calculated that, in theory, an area the size of Portugal would have to be filled with algae pools to satisfy Europe’s current fuel needs. A “leap in microalgae technology” is needed to at least triple productivity, say experts…
(28 July 2011)
Ethanol-loving bacteria accelerate cracking of pipeline steels
Staff, Biofuel Daily
U.S. production of ethanol for fuel has been rising quickly, topping 13 billion gallons in 2010. With the usual rail, truck and barge transport methods under potential strain, existing gas pipelines might be an efficient alternative for moving this renewable fuel around the country.
But researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) caution that ethanol, and especially the bacteria sometimes found in it, can dramatically degrade pipelines.
At a conference this week,* NIST researchers presented new experimental evidence that bacteria that feed on ethanol and produce acid boosted fatigue crack growth rates by at least 25 times the levels occuring in air alone.
The NIST team used a new biofuels test facility to evaluate fatigue-related cracking in two common pipeline steels immersed in ethanol mixtures, including simulated fuel-grade ethanol and an ethanol-water solution containing common bacteria, Acetobacter aceti. Ethanol and bacteria are known to cause corrosion, but this is the first study of their effects on fatigue cracking of pipeline steels.
“We have shown that ethanol fuel can increase the rate of fatigue crack growth in pipelines,” NIST postdoctoral researcher Jeffrey Sowards says.
“Substantial increases in crack growth rates were caused by the microbes. These are important data for pipeline engineers who want to safely and reliably transport ethanol fuel in repurposed oil and gas pipelines.”…
(1 Aug 2011)
3 things you need to know about biofuels
Maggie Koerth-Baker, Boingboing
Why care about liquid fuel?
There’s a reason we use different forms of energy to do different jobs, and it’s not because we’re all just that fickle. Instead, we’ve made these decisions based on some combination of what has (historically, anyway) given us the best results, what is safest, what is most efficient, and what costs us the least money.
In a nutshell, that’s why liquid fuel is so valuable. So far, it’s the clear winner when we need energy for transportation—especially air transportation and heavy, long-distance shipping—because it allows you to stuff a lot of energy into relatively small amount of storage space, and easily refill on the go. There are other options, of course, like electricity. And that can work quite well, depending on what you’re trying to do. Eventually, we may find ourselves in a world where liquid fuel is no longer the best option. But we aren’t there yet. And for those forms of transport that take us into the air or move our belongings very long distances, we aren’t likely to get there for a good long time.
That’s why I care about liquid fuel, and why I’m interested in the future of biofuels. Yes, biofuels do have a future. But what that future will be depends on whether we can control for some very messy variables. Here, in three points, are the big things you need to know about biofuel.
1. Corn ethanol really is flawed. But maybe not as much as you think…
…2. We can screw up cellulosic biofuel, too…
…3. Land use matters. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about that…
(9 Aug 2011)