A study done by the Smithsonian in 2013 found that out “of all the clean energy options in development, it is algae-based biofuel that most closely resembles the composition of the crude oil that gets pumped out from beneath the sea bed.” Petroleum, as we know it, is primarily based on the decomposition of these microorganisms, which require extreme heat and millions of years before being classified as crude.
But humans are busy creatures, and we don’t have time for that — especially with our current rate of consumption gobbling-up every gallon of gas on this green globe. We’ve covered Audi’s efforts in conversion of water to diesel, how scientists can now convert corn husks and cobs into ethanol, and how lightning can be harnessed to power cars, but as algae researcher Juergen Polle of Brooklyn College puts it, “We cannot fly planes with ethanol. We need oil.”
So researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory worked on not only replicating but speeding up the algae’s “cooking” process to the point where a small mixture of algae and water could be turned into crude in less than an hour. Completely refinable, this oil could be converted into jet fuel, gasoline, or diesel, while generating chemical elements and minerals for producing electricity, natural gas, and fertilizer to cultivate more algae. According to the Department of Energy, in order to meet the country’s entire oil consumption levels, we would need about 15,000 square miles of land — roughly the size of a state like Maryland — set aside for algae cultivation and refinement. This may sound like a lot of real estate, but if we wanted to replace diesel alone with bio-diesel from something like soybeans, it would require the use of half of the nation’s land mass.
Algae fuel is far cleaner than petroleum because it devours carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and flourishes in the ocean as well as wastewater. It isn’t hazardous like nuclear fuel, and it’s completely biodegradable. Algae blooms in the news may cause concern today, but these issues may be a blessing in disguise in future years as cleaning up these natural disasters only means more fuel for everyone. Scientists have been tinkering with the notion of algae power for quite some time too, stemming all the way back to the fuel crisis of the 1970s, and while the majority of its cost correlates to raising the microalagae in an open-pond system or a closed-loop, contaminated crops continue to be an issue.
But once scientists have a usable source of algae, all they must do is take a water solution that is 20% microalgae by weight and send it down a long tube that holds the algae at 660 degrees Fahrenheit and 3,000 PSI for 30 minutes, while stirring. The time in the pressure cooker breaks down the algae and reforms it into crude very quickly; 100 pounds of algae feedstock will typically yield 53 pounds of bio-oil. While this process does require a fair amount of power, heat recovery systems help and the chemical reactions leave residual hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide which can be used to create natural gas, while leftover minerals get used as fertilizer.
“It’s a formidable challenge, to make a biofuel that is cost-competitive with established petroleum-based fuels [but] this is a huge step in the right direction,” says Genifuel president James Oyler, an industry leader in algae refinement.
DENSO Corporation has announced that it will build a 215,300 square foot test facility for the culture of what the it calls “Pseudochoricystis ellipsoidea,” an oil-producing microalgae patented by DENSO for reducing CO2 emissions. The new facility, which is approximately the size of four U.S. football fields, will be located in Amakusa, Kumamoto, Japan, and will be used to perform verification tests needed to “establish large-scale microalgae cultivation technologies required to improve biofuel production efficiency.”
Slated for powering-up sometime next April, this facility will follow in the footsteps of a much smaller, 3,200-square-foot testing area in DENSO’s home prefecture of Aichi. Originally started in April 2008, this project focuses on producing biofuel from a very fast-growing, vigorous, and easily cultivated microalgae, and DENSO’s new facility will reportedly be one of the largest in Japan as the company races to have a large-scale microalgae cultivation facility in place by 2018 — almost eight years ahead of what the Smithsonian projected.
While Toyota’s top supplier may be better known for its fuel injectors, electronics, and oxygen sensors, its desire to give the world more oil and better sustainability is a fantastic one. Since algae can be grown both on land and at sea, the waterlogged, low-lying, brackish waters of Japan are perfect for this experiment. Nothing else can grow there, so why not make the most of it and propagate a product that may one day be worth big bucks?
Thus far, the only downsides to this form of bio-fuel are the bank-shattering production costs and a general lack of commercial viability, both of which can be easily negated by Toyota’s deep pockets and bountiful global connections. Being 24.7% owned by Toyota certainly must have its benefits, and having the world’s first large-scale algae cultivation and refinement lab will surely benefit both companies exponentially as government regulations continue to cause traditional oil suppliers headaches. DENSO has noted all of this too, saying that it is making this move in order to “continue its efforts to help preserve the global environment and create a sustainable society.”