Friday, April 17, 2009

Algae Optimistic. Nanotech Algal oil extraction .

Sapphire Logo

Algae biofuels are one of the most promising, intriguing forms of renewable energy currently in development—and even already in use!

Sapphire Energy is more than a little confident of its production schedule. The company, which is working on squeezing green crude from algae for high-octane fuels and was just founded in 2007, said today that it is ramping up its production estimates to 1 million gallons of algae-based diesel and jet fuel per year by 2011 — just 2-3 years from now. In addition, by 2018, Sapphire says that it will crank out up to 100 million gallons per year. By 2025, that number will soar to 1 billion gallons per year, which would be about 3 percent of the U.S. renewable fuel standard!

Why all the bravado? The startup is one of the most well funded in the algae fuel industry, with more than $100 million raised from the likes of Bill Gates’ investment firm Cascade Investment, as well as ARCH Venture Partners, Wellcome Trust and Venrock. And so far it has tested its fuel with two commercial airlines: Continental and JAL. It’s definitely leading the pack.

But in an uncertain economic climate and at a time when the biofuel industry is struggling across the board, Sapphire’s new gameplan is aggressive to say the least. GreenFuel Technologies, the Cambridge, Mass.-based algae-producer, likely had some pretty daring production estimates until it overestimated costs, struggled to raise funding and recently cut nearly half its staff. As Martin Tobias, former CEO of biodiesel maker Imperium Renewables and now CEO of, said recently at our Green:Net conference, the alternative fuel market is just a numbers game, making it extremely difficult for startups to tackle.

Energy Refuge is a big fan of algae biodiesel fuel. It just seems such a wonderful way of producing energy and there are so many advantages in the process that it really is something to be hopeful about. Of course, there are economic hurdles until mass production of algae biofuel becomes economically viable. But new tech developed looked promising. The American Chemical Society has released a statement saying that “chemists reported development of what they termed the first economical, eco-friendly process to convert algae oil into biodiesel fuel — a discovery they predict could one day lead to U.S. independence from petroleum as a fuel.”

One of the problems with current methods for producing biodiesel from algae oil is the processing cost, and the New York researchers say their innovative process is at least 40 percent cheaper than that of others now being used. Supply will not be a problem: There is a limitless amount of algae growing in oceans, lakes, and rivers, throughout the world.

Another benefit from the “continuously flowing fixed-bed” method to create algae biodiesel, they add, is that there is no wastewater produced to cause pollution.

“This is the first economical way to produce biodiesel from algae oil,” according to lead researcher Ben Wen, Ph.D., vice president of United Environment and Energy LLC, Horseheads, N.Y. “It costs much less than conventional processes because you would need a much smaller factory, there are no water disposal costs, and the process is considerably faster.” The National Science Foundation funded Wen’s research.

A key advantage of this new process, he says, is that it uses a proprietary solid catalyst developed at his company instead of liquid catalysts used.First, the solid catalyst can be used over and over. Second, it allows the continuously flowing production of biodiesel, compared to the method using a liquid catalyst. That process is slower because workers need to take at least a half hour after producing each batch to create more biodiesel. They need to purify the biodiesel by neutralizing the base catalyst by adding acid. No such action is needed to treat the solid catalyst.

It is estimated that algae has an “oil-per-acre production rate 100-300 times the amount of soybeans, and offers the highest yield feedstock for biodiesel and the most promising source for mass biodiesel production to replace transportation fuel The firm is conducting pilot program for the process with a production capacity of nearly 1 million gallons of algae biodiesel per year. Depending on the size of the machinery and the plant, he said it is possible that a company could produce up to 50 million gallons of algae biodiesel annually.

Researchers at the Ames Laboratory are growing several strains of algae to test nanofarming technology that uses sponge-like mesoporous nanoparticles to extract biofuel oils from the organisms
Over the past few years, a lot of time, money and effort have been directed towards making algae a viable source of alternative fuels, on account of the fact that some people are really interested in combating global warming and in offering the world replacements for coal, oil and natural gas. However, the amounts of alternative fuel that can be extracted from plants at this point are limited by the fact that the oil can only be processed if the plant is destroyed in the process. Now, nanofarming technology could provide algae processors around the world with a very effective way of doing just that.

The new methods involve the use of mesoporous nanoparticles, which extract the oil for processing from the living plants, without the need of the latter being destroyed in the process. This would basically considerably reduce the costs associated with this industry and also provide a boost for those seeking to enter it. The sponge-like materials are capable of collecting only small amounts of oil, but their numbers will be very large. Once the collection process is completed, a catalyst will be used to produce the biodiesel.

In charge of this research is a joint venture between the Ames Laboratory, a subsidiary of the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Iowa State University. The Ames facilities collaborate with nanotechnology company Catilin for the commercialization of the innovation, under a contract known as the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, belonging to the DOE, is funding the three-year project, with a total sum of roughly $885,000.

“By combining nanotechnology, chemistry and catalysis, we have been able to find solutions that have not been considered to date. Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University offer valuable research capabilities and resources that will play a key role in this exciting collaboration with Catilin,” Victor Lin, the Chemical and Biological Science program director at the Ames Laboratory, said. “When we ultimately put together this exceptional extraction technology with Catilin's existing solid biodiesel catalyst, we will dramatically increase the reality of renewable energy. Given the Obama administration's objectives, the timing is perfect,” Larry Lenhart, who is the CEO at Caitlin, concluded.