Large-scale biofuel farm using algae goes online


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Algae looks pretty disgusting in the old swimming pool pictured above, but the power of algae is now being harnessed by those hoping to exploit it as a powerful biofuel. Fortune has an interesting article about a huge new biofuel farm in New Mexico.

On a 2,200-acre expanse of desert scrub in Columbus, N.M. (pop. 1,678), Sapphire Energy has built the world’s first large-scale farm to grow algae and produce crude oil. The five-year-old company has spent about $60 million constructing an array of about 70 ponds, each the size of a football field, and a refinery, which began producing oil this past summer. The first barrels are rolling out now.

Algal oil “has the potential to change the world,” says Cynthia Warner, Sapphire’s chief executive, because the process by which it is grown will allow any nation to produce oil. Warner joined Sapphire after 28 years in the oil business, most recently as head of global refining at BP (BP). She couldn’t resist the allure of algae. Productive and versatile creatures, they grow fast, don’t need to be fed, and build up oil in their cells after being exposed to sunlight and CO2. They like salty or brackish water, so ponds can be built on cheap land where not much else will grow. Into each pond go genetically engineered single-celled algae that grow to maturity in about five days, after which they are skimmed from the water and put through a thermo-chemical “wet extraction” process to separate the oil. The company plans to make about 100 barrels of oil a day in New Mexico. If all goes according to plan, commercial production of perhaps 10,000 barrels a day will begin in 2018.

A ton of money has been plowed into the green space as venture capitalists try to capitalize on the desire for clean energy and renewable fuels. Read the rest of the article to get more information on this project. It will be fascinating to see if this project becomes economically viable. In an era where fracking is lowering the costs of natural gas and increasing oil output in the United States, it will be more difficult for projects like this to make money without subsidies.

How the Bloom Box works

Today is the official unveiling of the Bloom Box by Bloom Energy, so we’ll hopefully be getting more and more information on this innovative new fuel cell.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article that nicely summarizes how the technology works.

In case you’ve not read how the Bloom Box system works, each “power plant-in-a-box” come chock full of thin fuel cells, bundled and packaged into an outdoor-safe case. The individual cells soak up oxygen on one side, “and fuel on the other. The two combine within the cell to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity,” reported CBS last night. “There’s no need for burning or combustion” but it still requires some form of fuel to work. What kind is up to the owner.

“Our system can use fossil fuels like natural gas. Our system can use renewable fuels like landfill gas, bio-gas,” Sridhar says. “We can use solar.”

In some cases, CO2 is still being emitted by whatever power is feeding the Bloom Box. Rather than calling this new device “zero emission energy,” maybe it’s better to think of it as a booster pack for already-green sources and as an impressive new filter for dirty ones.

Also, The New York Times reports that the Bloom Box generates electricity at competitive rates.

Mr. Sridhar said the Bloom Energy Server has been generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour.

In California, where Bloom has installed 30 fuel-cell systems, commercial electricity rates averaged about 14 cents a kilowatt-hour in October 2009, according to the latest figures from the United States Department of Energy. Elsewhere, commercial rates averaged 7 to 24 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Last July, eBay flipped the switch on five Bloom Energy Servers that now supply 15 percent of the electricity at its San Jose, Calif., campus, or about five times as much energy as generated by its 3,248 solar panels, according to Amy Skoczlas Cole, director of the company’s Green Team.

“We’re expecting a three-year payback period,” said Ms. Skoczlas Cole, adding that the calculation includes state and federal tax incentives that halved the price of the fuel cells.

Very impressive!

Creativity in the development of alternative fuels

The New York Times has a cool new story about the development of algae for use as a biofuel. The article explains how a new start-up company co-founded by a Colorado State University professor recently introduced a strain of algae that loves carbon dioxide into a water tank next to a natural gas processing plant.

The story is interesting as it also focuses on the involvement of the Southern Utes Indian community as an investor in the project. But the most interesting element involves the interrelated efforts to develop alternative energy.

One of the keys to new projects is eliminating waste and taking advantage of heat and other byproducts of one energy-generating process and using these byproducts in another process built next to the first process. Here’s a summary of how this will work regarding this algae process.

Solix’s facility project is next to the natural gas processing plant for access to the carbon dioxide waste stream, which will be used to nourish the algae — a kind of biological recycling of carbon dioxide before its discharge into the atmosphere as the vegetable fuel is burned.

The plant also produces waste heat, which could be used to warm the algae beds in winter. In addition, the high desert plateau of southwest Colorado is one of the sunniest spots in the nation, providing solar radiation that accelerates algae growth.

Central to Solix’s business model, Dr. Willson said, is the hope that power plants and other factories now venting carbon dioxide will allow the company to build an algae farm next to their carbon dioxide vent pipes. A plant could sell the oil or biodiesel, and Solix would earn its return by being a part owner-operator, or by licensing the technology.

Conservation and efficiency are the new buzzwords in the renewable energy field (among many). Energy should never go to waste, and many projects that were once too difficult to make commercially viable can have a new life when one examines how to exploit byproducts from well-established processes. The possibilities are endless.

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