March 25, 2009
Solid Catalyst Makes Algae Biodiesel Cost Effective?

Can a better catalyst make algae biodiesel competitive?

"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."

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.

Or are the costs of growing the algae so high that even before processing it the costs are too high? Anyone have insights with which to judge the plausibility of this claim?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 March 25 10:42 PM  Energy Biomass

Wolf-Dog said at March 26, 2009 3:56 AM:

Actually if the world uses electric cars, then we can directly burn dried algae (which is oil rich) in power plants to generate electricity. No need to convert algae oil into biodiesel. Only aircraft would need liquid fuel extracted from algae.

Sean Keller said at March 26, 2009 10:19 AM:

Wow that's a great point. Fueling transportation is key and when transportation changes fueling options change. Will big tractor trailer trucks be able to run from electricity or will they need biodiesel too? Or will big tractor trailer trucks become gradually obselete as we create newer more efficient ways of shipping. I think that biodiesel will be around for a while before electric or complete transport revamps are able to happen.

Sean Keller

James Bowery said at March 26, 2009 10:44 AM:

Per area cost of infrastructure is the problem.

Algae can be made around 5% solar efficient under optimal growing conditions. Regular photosynthesis is around 1%. With some more engineering, there are those who speculate you might go as high as 10% with algae but I'm skeptical.

You can make land-based algae pay if you use it as base-of-the-food-chain. Biodiesel _might_ be a by-product.

Mariculture of algae may even make algae biodiesel pay on its own but there has to be some more creative thinking.

James Bowery said at March 26, 2009 11:36 AM:

Well no sooner did I mention mariculture of algae as a potential source of biodiesel than the following shows up:

t is another nail in the coffin of using ocean fertilisation to cool the planet. Early results from the latest field experiment suggest the technique will fail.
Instead, the bloom attracted a swarm of hungry copepods. The tiny crustaceans graze on phytoplankton, which keeps the carbon in the food chain and prevents it from being stored in the ocean sink. Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research reported that the copepods were in turn eaten by larger crustaceans called amphipods, which serve as food for squid and fin whales.

It's now going on 10 years that I've been saying the folks criticizing iron fertilization on the grounds that it might not sequester carbon are trying to destroy the Amazon rainforest, Subsaharan Africa's wild species and coastal ecosystems so that they can malnurish most of humanity -- they should therefore be taken out to the parking-lot and summarily shot. Well, ok, maybe that's a little harsh, but at least beat them to a bloody pulp.

Brian said at March 26, 2009 1:15 PM:

Here's an example of algae based bio-oil at about $50/barrel. The process consumes a significant amount of CO2.

and the company website at:

James Bowery said at March 26, 2009 2:30 PM:

Marvelous, Brian! Now get an actual delivery of oil from them and tell me how much you actually paid per volume and I'll update The Oil Prize!

John Moore said at March 26, 2009 7:38 PM:

It's pretty clear that if any biofuel is successful, it will be algae based. The obvious advantages in density and conversion simplicity are hard to overcome. Whether it is mariculture or not is hard to say. If we have to go carbon neutral (which I doubt, but we may be forced by eco-nuts), algae -> liquid hydrocarbons is pretty obvious.

Larry said at March 28, 2009 2:09 PM:

I love the productivity of algae. But why is the VC industry largely staying away from algae? They say the business plans suck. All of them. Innovation requires multiple inventions. It appears we're one or two short...

Engineer-Poet said at March 29, 2009 5:30 PM:

Because of the credit crunch, it's much cheaper to buy oil than build the systems to replace it.  However, that same crunch has slashed investment in new production, and existing fields are declining inexorably.  When economies start to improve, they will run into the oil-production ceiling at a lower level than last time, with the same or worse results.  We really do need to go electric, because we can be certain it will work and we won't be dependent on one or a few crops.

Sean Keller:  Have you looked at the Bladerunner dual-mode truck concept?  It slashes rolling friction, allows trucks to run on very low-maintenance rails rather than potholed roads, and can be electrified relatively easily.  We could start cutting the cost of freeways by laying rail on the innermost lanes and taxing the bejesus out of the trucks that don't use it.  This would reduce the amount of road damage caused by trucks and lengthen the life of the remaining roadway, while simultaneously cutting diesel consumption and pollution.  This owuld allow more cars to run on diesel.  Win/win/win.

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