Bio-diesel, produced from saltwater-based algae could be cost-effective, not costlier than the petroleum variety.
Aurora Biofuels, located in Alameda, California has reported their 18 month pilot project produced 1,000 gallons of American Society for Testing and Materials (ATSM) quality biodiesel in Florida open ponds of just 1/8th of an acre. The company estimates they could grow 6,000 gallons per acre in full production mode.
A company spokesperson stated, "In the near-term we expect to demonstrate that the economics of this process can produce biodiesel that is price-competitive with fossil fuels." A 50 acre pond is scheduled for completion in 2010.
Recent findings of Australian researchers tended to agree.
A paper released by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and titled Greenhouse gas sequestration by algae, said "it is possible to produce algal biodiesel at less cost and with a substantial greenhouse gas and energy balance advantage over fossil diesel."
Factoring in the cost of transporting biodiesel from an algal farm, they suggest that the best scenario may be to locate an electricity generating plant in the same vicinity and simply convert the chemical energy into electricity. Creating such a powerplant would also make new jobs for local workers. (The analysis used an assumption of about 1,000 acres of ponds.)
In a related development, researchers in New York this week reported the development of a new technique which they say can reduce the production cost of algal biodiesel by 40%. Their process is called a 'continuously flowing fixed-bed' and uses a solid rather than liquid catalyst, which allows the flow of biodiesel to stay constant. With liquid catalysts each batch is made and then there is a down time of about 30 minutes to start another flow.
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, vice president of United Environment and Energy, "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."
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 by other scientists today. 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, Wen explains.
He estimates 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 in the United States."
He says that his firm is now conducting a 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.
Wen also says that the solid catalyst continuous flow method can be adapted to mobile units so that smaller companies wouldn't have to construct plants and the military could use the process in the field.
The National Science Foundation funded Wen's research.