The Greenest Biofuel- Literally

by tj on July 30, 2008

The major problem with most renewable fuel sources is the simple reality that they are derived from materials of finite supply (such as food stocks). While it may be true that more corn, palm, or even sugar cane can be planted to offset fuel consumption, many analysts agree that the smartest of all biofuels just may be algae based.

So how does this stuff work? Pretty naturally it turns out. Algae produces energy rich oil naturally (think of that green slime that so often inhabits stagnant water). Raw algae can be harvested and processed to make biocrude, the renewable equivalent of petroleum, which can then be refined to make gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

It turns out not all algae strains are created equal but that can be advantageous as well. Thos strains that produce more carbohydrates can be processed and fermented to make ethanol (with leftover proteins used for animal feed).

But what really makes the algae shine over other biofuel options comes in the form of efficiency. To provide some perspective remember that one acre of corn produces a maximum of 18 gallons of oil per year. That same acre of palm trees produces 700 gallons per year. An acre sized open pond can produce 20,000 gallons of algae oil per year.

What we find most interesting is that back in 1986 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) saw the potential of algae based fuel and began a program of study that was terminated a decade later on account of the fact that crude was being traded so affordably that it was impossible for the added cost of algae harvesting to compete. Of late however, algae-based fuels would likely be a cheaper alternative to crude petrol fuels while at the same time reducing the world’s dependency on fossil fuel.

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