The algae biofuel wars have gone into high boil, as the U.S. Navy continues to press ahead with a major seagoing biofuel demonstration project despite Congressional action to restrict military purchases of alternative fuels. Now researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory have stirred the pot even more with the announcement of a new process that could significantly lower the cost of making algae biofuel.
A significant drop in the cost of algae biofuel would effectively pull the carpet out from under the new restriction, which only applies to alternative fuels that are more expensive than their fossil fuel counterparts. That would be good news for the private sector, too, since key customers like the Navy could help kickstart demand and help the biofuel industry develop economies of scale more rapidly. The U.S. Navy and the Green Strike Group
As with the other branches of the armed services, the Navy has been on an all-out push to transition out of fossil fuel dependency. Its primary biofuel initiative is the new Green Strike Group, which began development in 2010 as a showcase for non-petroleum fuels in naval operations, including algae biofuel. The Strike Group’s maiden voyage will take place next month, when it will participate in the international Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the largest maritime exercise of its kind in the world.
The Strike Group is an intermediate step in the planned launch of the Navy’s Great Green Fleet in 2016.
A big step to biofuel from microalgae
Algae, particularly microalgae, are of special interest to biofuel researchers because of their rich energy density and rapid rate of growth compared to higher order plants.
One obstacle to efficient algae biofuel production, though, is that algae are naturally inclined to convert carbon into starch rather than oil.
Until now the problem has been solved by withholding certain nutrients, which forces algae into producing more oil. That approach obviously has its limits, as withholding nutrients will stunt growth and at a certain point the algae will starve to death.
The Brookhaven team found a pathway to boosting oil production while enabling algae to grow normally. After a detailed study of the processes involved in oil production by algae, the team found that feeding the algae more acetate did the trick (acetate is a common organic compound widely used in industry). In a carbon-enriched environment, the algae quickly reached the limit of their ability to make starch, but they continued to metabolize the excess carbon.
The result was that the algae continued to thrive while producing oil at a higher rate than they would have without the extra carbon. As Xu notes, that effect will probably sound familiar to anyone familiar with weight gain related to consuming excess carbon in the form of carbohydrates.
The road to commercial algae biofuel
Many steps remain between the Brookhaven lab and a commercial application for the team’s findings, but it is another indication that the algae biofuel industry is likely to leave Congressional intent behind in the dust within a very short time.
Though the cost of algae biofuel to the Navy is still about $26 per gallon, that represents a steep drop off the cliff from just a couple of years ago, when the industry is in its infancy and only test quantities were available.
As final preparations for RIMPAC get under way, last week in the Navy began pumping 900,000 gallons of biofuel into the oiler Henry J. Kaiser to prepare for fueling up ships and aircraft assigned to the Green Strike Group. The fuel, which was successfully tested over the past year, consists of algae oil and waste cooking oil mixed 50-50 with petroleum.
At a field hearing for a Senate subcommittee earlier this year, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made it clear that, in a historical context, military biofuels are here to stay:
“The Great Green Fleet is not about some environmental agenda. It is about maintaining America’s military and economic leadership across the globe in the 21st Century. In the middle of the 19th Century, it was the Navy that shifted from sail to steam. In the early 20th Century, we shifted again from steam to oil, and in the middle of the 20th Century it was the Navy that pioneered nuclear power. At each of those transitions, there were those who questioned the need, challenged the cost or simply opposed change of any kind.”
Private sector companies like U.S.-based OriginOil are already achieving process breakthroughs that offer the potential for additional steep declines in the price of algae biofuel. OriginOil has also partnered with the Idaho National Laboratory to develop international standards for algae biomass, which would open up the entire NATO market to U.S. biofuel sales.
In addition to the Department of Energy’s foundational research, the Department of Defense is also supporting algae and biofuel research through its support of a $44 million, multi-state, public-private initiative that launched in 2010.
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