Category: R & D

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Scott Peters (D-CA) and Matt Salmon (R-AZ) — announced the relaunching of the Congressional Algae Caucus last week. This caucus aims to provide a forum to foster Congressional awareness of the enormous potential now being uncovered in tiny algae plant cells.

Representative Salmon commented: “In my own state we are already seeing the economic development that is possible from a thriving algae sector, from jobs to research and development. High tech jobs will help grow our economy and through this caucus, I hope to draw attention to the great economic and environmental benefits of algae production.”

Representative Peters stated, “My hope is that the Algae Caucus is a place for bipartisan discussion on how to diversify our energy policy, while also informing members of Congress about the jobs and partnerships the algae industry is creating, including at the University of California San Diego with the new California Center for Algae Biotechnology.”

Additional members of the bipartisan Congressional Algae Caucus include: Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Tom Latham (R-IA), Trey Radel (R-FL), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Tim Walz (D-MN) , Jackie Speier (D-CA), Susan Davis (D-CA), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Duncan Hunter (R-CA). Hats off to them!

The algae biofuels market is expected to reach $1.6 billion by 2015. Algae also offers additional applications in the food, green chemicals and plastics industries. Algae grows faster and requires fewer resources than other biologically based feedstocks.

My favorite application for algae is its use to clean up wastewater and then used the converted and harvested biomass as an energy source. But there are some really great new developments in algae biofuels that deserve special mention.

For example, the Green Crude Farm in New Mexico is now operational, refining algae into crude oil for transportation. Sapphire Energy raised about $300 million in public and private backing for the project.  Its Series C round was reported to be one of the largest venture capital deals in 2012.

The commercial success of its algae-based crude has enabled Sapphire to pay off the entire $54.5 million in federal loan guarantees the comapny obtained in 2009 from the Biorefinery Assistance Program, administered by the USDA Rural Development-Cooperative Service. “The investments being made in low-carbon biofuel production are paying off and moving technologies forward, which will produce savings at the pump for consumers, and spur sustainable, new-wealth creation here in the United States, and make our land more productive,” says Doug O’Brien, Acting Under Secretary for Rural Development.

Commercial airlines are also now testing and running on fuels that include Solazyme’s algae-based fuel. Solazyme is reportedly the first publicly-traded algae company (Nasdaq: SZYM). The company has signed a $120 million loan agreement with joint venture partner Bunge for a loan from the Brazilian National Development Bank. That loan will be used It will  be used to develop the first commercial-scale renewable oil production facility in Brazil.

The high yield per acre (up to 5,000 gallons of renewable oil per year on a single acre) and minimal environmental impact of algae biofuels make them one of the most viable and attractive biofuels on the market today.

More information:

Panda power!

Turns out that the Panda Bear’s intestinal tract harbors bacteria which allow them to digest bamboo and other tough grasses. Scientists are working on cultivating the bacteria to help break down plant materials that are resistant to anaerobic digestion, for use in producing biofuels.

For more information:

Save the Panda Bears and help save the planet!

Biofuel from Newspapers

Today’s fishwrap is tomorrow’s biofuel: a research team from Tulane University has found a low cost, energy efficient way to recycle ordinary newspapers into butanol biofuel, which can be used as a drop-in replacement for gasoline. The secret ingredient is a bacteria found in animal droppings, which naturally produces butanol as it digests the news. That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, because the animal waste-to-biofuel connection is being explored on a number of different fronts, and bacteria are emerging front and center in the new world of low cost biofuel.

The Importance of Being Butane Biofuel

The benefits of the newspaper-bacteria biofuel production process are many. Because it is based on natural fermentation, it needs less energy than conventional biofuel operations. Aside from the simplicity of the process, the use of a recycled material rather than a food crop such as corn is a big plus. Since butane is a drop-in fuel, it can be substituted for gasoline without needing any engine modifications, which gives it an edge over ethanol. According to writer Kathryn Hobgood Ray at Tulane, butane also contains more energy than ethanol and it is less corrosive to fuel pipelines, and it has a far lower carbon footprint than gasoline.

Bacteria and Biofuel

The Tulane team calls their new bacteria TU-103, and it is apparently the first bacteria found in nature that can convert cellulose directly into butanol. Meanwhile, over at the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers are developing another biofuel microbe that can produce butanol from waste material, including agricultural waste. In an interesting twist, the University of Alabama is developing a butane-producing bacteria that lives on glycerol – an annoying byproduct of biofuel operations.

Source: Clean Technica (

Algae for aviation fuel

NASA is working on developing aviation fuel from algae and halophytes (plants that tolerate or like salt)!

Algae Power!

Here’s an interesting press release on generating RNG from algae. The R&D reported below falls a bit short of my pet interest — generating energy from organic waste — but it certainly has enormous potential that is also being developed and applied to handle wastewater problems and generate energy!

I’ve heard about some projects that are growing algae which cleans the wastewater, and then harvesting the algae to generate energy. That is being done in both industrial settings, and in municipal wastewater treatment plants.  I’m absolutely all for that! Those are win-win scenarios! I’ll post some reports on those.

Algae blooms are a huge problem contaminating waters worldwide, too.  I’m hoping this research branches out into commercially viable technologies to clean algae blooms out of contaminated water bodies, and generate biomethane!

Renewable Natural Gas Produced from Algae

A news release by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – May, 2009

Catalytic Hydrothermal Gasification

A new method for converting algae into renewable natural gas for use in pipelines and power generation has been transferred from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to the marketplace under a license between Genifuel Corporation and Battelle.

The method, called catalytic hydrothermal gasification, creates natural gas out of algae – more quickly, more efficiently and at higher yields than other biofuel processes. Genifuel expects the process also requires less capital investment. The license agreement moves this technology for renewable energy production a step closer to commercial reality. Battelle operates PNNL for DOE.

“Algae and other aquatic biomass hold significant promise for our country’s ability to produce renewable energy domestically,” said Genifuel President Jim Oyler. “At Genifuel we have developed efficient growth and harvesting techniques for the aquatic biomass. With this gasification process, we can convert the biomass to a clean fuel that is almost completely carbon-neutral.”

Recycled Carbon Dioxide

He calls the PNNL process an “elegant system,” noting that more than 99 percent of the biomass is gasified to produce renewable natural gas and byproducts such as carbon dioxide which can be recycled and reused in the algae growth ponds.

PNNL originally developed the catalytic gasification process to clean up industrial and food processing waste as an alternative to incineration. Over the past 10 years, PNNL scientists advanced the technology to include a more stable catalyst that enables it to also convert wet biomass, such as algae. PNNL has tested the gasifier with terrestrial plants, kelp and water hyacinths. It works especially well for aquatic biomass such as algae, because the feedstock doesn’t require drying before fuel production.

Battelle granted Genifuel an exclusive license for the technology. As a national laboratory, one of PNNL’s missions is to advance science and technology toward solutions that industry can take to the marketplace.

Renewable Portfolio Standards

“Electricity produced from this natural gas can help electric utilities meet Renewable Portfolio Standards that require renewable energy sources,” Oyler said. “Existing natural gas pipelines can deliver the fuel, or it can be used to produce electricity onsite in conventional natural-gas turbine generators.”

The PNNL gasifier runs at relatively low temperatures – 350-degrees Celsius compared with 700-degrees or more for other systems – in a small stainless steel reactor.

According to Doug Elliott, the PNNL scientist who invented the gasification process, “It is simple – we put wet biomass like algae in the gasifier, where it is catalytically converted, and we collect fuel gas and byproducts.

“It’s serendipity that our system creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct that Genifuel needs naturally to grow the algae,” he said. “It’s a completely green process.”

Fast with High Yields

Compared with other methods of gasifying biomass, such as anaerobic digestion, PNNL’s process works 400 times faster and gives higher yields.

While simple in concept, the science behind the gasification process is actually quite complex. The technology has been under development for a number of years. PNNL scientists have achieved significant advances in the chemistry of catalysts and the selection of the optimum temperatures and pressures for the process, as well as improving the systems to protect the catalyst from impurities in the biomass.

PNNL scientists have extensive expertise in catalysis and reaction engineering, with particular focus on solutions for efficient use of bioproducts, converting biomass and renewable feedstocks to fuels and chemicals, and reducing environmental emissions.

High-quality water and land not needed

Genifuel grows aquatic biomass, such as algae, in shallow ponds or troughs, then harvests and processes the biomass for conversion using the PNNL technology. Water used in the growth ponds doesn’t have to be high-quality fresh water, and can be treated wastewater, brackish or alkaline water, or even salt water, Oyler said. Non-crop land can be used, so the process doesn’t compete with food production.


The EU commission’s state support enquiry has been completed with a positive outcome and the Swedish Energy Agency can now grant 222 million SEK to the GoBiGas-project. The GoBiGas-project is a large investment in production of renewable methane by thermic gasification of biofuels and low-quality forestry material.

Anders Lewald, head of the Transport Unit at the Swedish Energy Agency, welcomes the news from the EU Commission: “Commercialisation of the gasification technology, particularly regarding production of biomethane will now get the chance to take the next step in the development”.

The gasification plant will be built in two phases; the first phase will be put in operation at the end of 2012. The second will be implemented after an evaluation of the first phase. The project is a collaboration between Göteborgs Energi and E.ON.

“We have to be able to handle the climate threat as well as continue to use different means of transportation. This is why it is important that Sweden invests in development of second generation biofuels, contributing to lower the climate impact of the transport sector” says Maud Olofsson, Minister of Enterprise and Energy, in a press release issued from the Swedish government.

GoBiGas is the second project receiving a grant within the call for proposals regarding second generation biofuels and other energy technologies issued from the Swedish Energy Agency at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. The first project granted was Volvo Cars development of an electric vehicle, C30 BEV.


Biomethane as an Energy Carrier -  Superior to Electricity!

October 20, 2009

Methane is a better long-distance energy carrier than electricity. Its storage and transportation is much cheaper and easier than electricity. Natural gas pipelines cost half as much to build as electric towers and have about one fourth as much transmission loss. They are also more reliable, safer and visually superior to ugly transmission towers….

Our electrical grid is only 30% efficient in delivering the energy in fuel burned to the customer. That efficiency could be doubled or even tripled if we used combined heat and power (CHP) generators located where heat is needed. By using the generator’s waste heat, an efficiency of 85% is possible. Clearly it is smarter to expand our gas pipeline network than to build more electrical towers to distribute inefficiently generated electricity from massive power plants. …

In Germany 22 billion kWh of biogas were produced in 2007. That’s a six-fold increase from 1999, driven partly by feed-in tariffs. About half of that biomethane was from landfill and sewage gas and the other half was from commercial and agricultural biomass plants. Renewable biogas is produced by natural processes of anaerobic digestion or gasification then cleaned up for sale to the gas pipeline. Sweden already gets 25% of their energy from biogas.

Energy storage is another big advantage of gas. Both the gas and the electricity grids need energy storage to take up the slack between production and consumption. Gas storage is cheap because it can simply be pumped into depleted gas wells and salt caverns. We are already storing 4.1 Tcf of gas in the US. At 85% efficiency that gas could produce 1,180 gigawatt-hours of useful power on demand. A very cheap battery!  The smart electrical grid is all about making supply match demand because electrical storage is so expensive. …

People have already begun selling renewable gas into the pipeline.  Landfills, manure piles and sewage plants that used to release significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere are now selling it as green gas. Biomass and garbage can also be gasified to add to the supply. The energy balance of Grass Biomethane production is 50% better than annual crops now used. When biogas is captured instead of releasing it to the atmosphere we get a double bonus. Methane is 72 times worse than CO2 as a cause of global warming in a 20-year time frame. You may have heard 25 times, but that’s based on a 100-year time frame. Methane only persists about 8 years. Also, when manure piles are covered, N²O, which is 289 times worse than CO², can also be captured. Coal mines emit almost a trillion cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere every year.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, the 230-acre Rumpke landfill has been capped and the gas is cleaned and delivered to the pipeline to provide enough gas for 25,000 Duke Energy customers. China has an estimated 31 million biogas digesters mostly on small farms. They produce in total about 9 Gigawatts of renewable energy which is mostly used locally. Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and now Ontario, Canada have feed-in tarrifs to encourage production of biogas. In Germany small farms can receive up to 25 cents per kWh for biopower. In the US, bills like SB306 that support biogas production, are still stuck in committee.

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Increased system efficiency means we will need less of these renewable sources to do the job. If we’re going to gasify biomass, it is more efficient to upgrade the gas and send it through the gas grid to customer CHP units than to generate electricity less efficiently and send it over less efficient, more expensive power lines to the customer. Until we get more efficient electrical generators, generation should always be done where the waste heat can be put to good use.

Electric cars would be twice as efficient if they fueled up with natural gas and used a fuel cell to recharge a small battery. Like a hybrid with a natural gas fuel cell range extender. The expense and weight of a large battery is eliminated and the energy can be stored in a much lighter and cheaper tank. Refuelling can be much faster and could even be done at home from your natural gas connection. New, low pressure, adsorption tanks make this easy because they only require 500 psi of pressure. Recharging is a problem with batteries.  A 110v, 20A household plug can only supply 2.2 kW, which means that 10 hours of home charging will only take you 10 x 2.2 x 4 mi/kW = 88 miles. Natural gas refueling infrastructure is in place in much of the world to refuel five million vehicles worldwide.


Just came across this:

“According to a study made by the ADEME [Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie - Angers, France], biogas represents in the world a resource comparable to fossil gas yearly consumption (1.800 Mtep/year). This energy is too dispersed in the world to be easily recoverable but the potential is evaluated from 100 to 300 Mtep/year. The quantity valued today is that of 0,5% of the total potential.”


Bio-oil for asphalt

Source: EurekAlert! via Iowa State University | October 8 2010

It is easy to label cars gas hogs and blame our dependence on foreign oil solely on the internal combustion engine. Yet most cars (my Jeep an exception, of course) need a smooth, flat road to operate on safely. Our roads are made from asphalt, which uses plenty of petroleum itself. Even a 100% electric car powered by solar energy will still punish a road driving over it many millions of times over. Those roads have to be built and maintained, requiring yet more oil. Ending our oil dependence isn’t as easy as some people claim.

However, there might be a solution for our asphalt problem coming from Iowa. Researchers from Iowa State University have come up with a bio-oil made from corn stalks, wood waste, and other bio-mass that could one day replace oil in asphalt.

Researcher Christopher Williams developed the bio-oil, which is made when biomass is superheated in an oxygen-free area. The resulting bio-oil can be mixed with asphalt and replace petroleum. It is also a money saver because it is easier to pave with bio-asphalt, and it doesn’t have to be heated as high to be used. Having briefly done a stint with a paving company, I can speak from personal experience; those machines get hot and extremely unpleasant to be around.

The bio-asphalt is first being tried out on a bike trail being built around Des Moines, Iowa. The mixture will contain just 5% bio-oil to begin with, a humble start that could one day grow to much more. Hopefully this project will have a positive outcome, because it sounds like another small-yet-important step to reducing, and eventually eliminating, our dependence on oil.

Reproduced from:

Market opportunities for biogas recovery systems

From a June 2010 AgSTAR/USEPA  report:

“Biogas recovery systems are feasible at more than 8,000 U.S. dairy and swine operations. Biogas recovery systems at these facilities have the potential to collectively generate more than 13 million megawatt-hours (MWh) per year and displace about 1,670 megawatts (MW) of fossil fuel-fired generation. In addition, biogas recovery systems are also feasible at some poultry operations.”

For more information:

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