The Optimistic Futurist: Algae can help fuel reduction in oil dependency

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 10, 2012

By Francis Koster
The United States imports roughly 31/2 billion barrels of oil per year, and in return about $350 billion U.S. dollars go out of our country every year. This comes to about $1,200 per citizen per year. You can see that if we could figure out a way to stop buying foreign oil, that $350 billion would be left in the U.S. economy to create new jobs here at home.
Turns out there is a rapidly emerging solution that would reduce pollution, create local jobs and be cheaper than importing oil. It is called “bio-fuel from algae.” Because pilot projects have recently proven that the technology is ready for commercialization, large-scale technical systems are being prepared for production. This is due to lessons learned over the last few years as national production from bio-fuels of all sorts has ramped up from 331 million gallons in 2009 to 1 billion gallons in 2011.
Efforts to get fuel from plants have been around for some time and have, in fact, produced a lot of fuel and a great deal of political heat. One of the first attempts to deal with this opportunity was to raise crops that could be turned into oil (corn and soybeans were among the first candidates). While this did produce various bio-fuels, there was a lot of criticism that it raised the world price of corn and other crops beyond reach for many poor nations and led to big taxpayer subsidies to agribusiness.
Given a choice between growing food or growing fuel, the bio-fuel source is important. Biodiesel produced from soybeans produces 50 gallons/acre/year. Biodiesel from corn yields 1,300 gallons/acre/year. And biodiesel from algae produces between 5,000 and 15,000 gallons per year from the same acre!
Now comes some more good news: The production process using algae can be designed so that the algae feeds on pollution from sewage treatment plants and CO2 from any fossil fuel burning plant, like an electric generation plant, brick plant or landfill. Instead of needing fertilizer, the algae production process consumes things that can harm our air, water, or climate!
And bio-fuels from algae can be grown anywhere. Australian researchers, after studying the results of working pilot projects, concluded that “the cost of saltwater algae production is now, based on current science, lower than the cost of diesel from fossil crude oil.” This report led to efforts now under way to create many bio-diesel algae farms covering hundreds of acres in Australia.
The scaling up of this and similar projects has now attracted investors from the major fossil fuel refining companies, and the governments of China and India. More than 30 significant United States companies are hard at work in this field now, including several well known names listed on U.S. stock markets. Several have developed modular algae production/refining units using shipping containers as basic structures, leading to a shippable, standardized, durable production plant component that can be scaled up simply by adding more containers.
The National Algae Association has been working to create an industry that will provide a decentralized manufacturing system producing liquid fuels. According to Barry Cohen, executive director of the organization, preliminary 5-acre pilot projects have demonstrated the ability to successfully produce bio-fuels from algae using techniques that will produce the bio-crude (not yet refined) for around $1.50 per gallon when scaled up, which compares very favorably to the cost of imported crude oil at $2.30 last week.
Local community business people and elected officials now need to abandon a whole set of assumptions that they grew up with, like “Oil is refined on the Gulf Coast,” or “It is a shame, but we have no ability to produce a local supply of transportation fuel where we live,” or most importantly, “We cannot create jobs in our town by producing vehicle fuel.” These life-shaping assumptions are all now becoming obsolete.
Whenever I hear people talking about the economy coming back, they are usually thinking in terms of a return to what the local economy used to be based on — furniture, textiles, timber and so forth. This limits their thinking to the familiar. Wouldn’t it be exciting to think of a better future, with different building blocks?
What is needed is the courage to decide to become a stronger economic community by taking advantage of local waste heat, local sewage treatment plant pollution, local high school science teachers (go to YouTube and search on “bio-diesel from algae” and “high school” to see why), local gas stations and oil distributors and entrepreneurs to form public/private partnerships. And the shared joy of disconnecting from an energy system fraught with expense, politics, pollution, and conflict.
With this new science and engineering, we no longer need outsiders to sell us fuel — we just need the gumption to create a better future for ourselves, and our children.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit his website: