Jason Barton

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Archive for the ‘Algae’ tag

Algae May Be the Future of Biofuels, but it’s a Distant Future

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This is promising. Whatever we may say about Monsanto (read more here), there are some smart people working there, and their investment in technology to use algae for biofuels shows there is some real promise in those efforts. The innovation needed to make this technology energy efficient and cost effective, however, is a long way off.

Cellulosic biofuels from crops with which we have great experience, such as corn and grasses, continues to face considerable barriers. First, while we have known for millennia how to ferment 6 carbon sugars such as glucose,we lack the experience and an efficient method to ferment the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars in cellulose. To complicate matters further, unlike the sugars in cane or in the carbohydrates in corn, the sugars in cellulose are mixed in with lignin, the stiff, woody parts of plants that give them their structure.

Sapphire energy, the company discussed in the article below, will not likely ferment the sugars for fuels like ethanol, but will extract the oil to make diesel fuel. This process still faces barriers as formidable as those I discuss above, plus the added disadvantage that we don’t have proven methods to grow, harvest, and process algae efficiently.

You might be thinking, ‘the pond near our backyard grows tons of algae and we don’t even want it, how hard can it be?’ When we’re trying to grow enough to be used to power cars and planes, and in a small space with limited inputs of water and other form energy, it gets trickier.

It will take time to develop the methods to do all of this. It can be done, but let’s not figure that developments such as this give us license to continue using fossil fuels with our present, reckless abandon.

Innovation, yes, efficiency always.

Monsanto Backs Algae Startup Sapphire Energy

content by earth2tech

By Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech

Tue Mar 8, 2011 11:07am EST

Agriculture and genetics giant Monsanto has made its bet on algae. On Tuesday Monsanto announced that it has made an equity investment in, and developed a partnership with, algae startup Sapphire Energy.

Founded in 2007, Sapphire Energy uses synthetic biology to make a green crude out of algae that can be turned into gas, diesel or jet fuel. Monsanto wants access to Sapphire’s genetic research technology to use it for its own agricultural development. Using Sapphire’s genetic technology, Monsanto can isolate traits in algae (like high yields and stress traits) that could be used to tweak other crops. Monsanto’s CTO Robb Fraley said in a release that algae is an “excellent discovery tool,” for agricultural genetic research.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

March 20th, 2011 at 10:52 am

Biofuels Beyond Ethanol

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Here are a couple of interesting articles about the next generations of biofuels.

The first two sentences of the first article below are priceless, and quite correct. As expected, the article in The Economist is excellent. It’s not exactly cutting edge, as these technologies have been discussed for well over a year, and it doesn’t look like we’re a whole lot closer now.

As I said in that post above over a year ago, when these fuels do become cost effective and energetically efficient, we will need to be very careful about converting more land to monocultures to produce biomass as feedstocks for these fuels.

The Worldwatch article below addresses this issue obliquely with its hopeful look at algae as a feedstock. We face some of the same problems with algae as we do with cellulosic bofuels–trying to expose the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars for fermentation–as well as the added difficulty in our lack of experience either growing or harvesting algae.

It’ll be a while before any of these are ready for your gs tank, but it’s encouraging that we’re thinking this far ahead.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

The future of biofuels

The post-alcohol world

Biofuels are back. This time they might even work

Oct 28th 2010 | London and san francisco

MAKE something people want to buy at a price they can afford. Hardly a revolutionary business strategy, but one that the American biofuels industry has, to date, eschewed. Now a new wave of companies think that they have the technology to change the game and make unsubsidised profits. If they can do so reliably, and on a large scale, biofuels may have a lot more success in freeing the world from fossil fuels than they have had until now.


That is a start, but it will not be enough, Wood is a possibility, particularly if it is dealt with chemically, rather than biologically (much of the carbon in wood is in the form of lignin, a molecule that is even tougher than cellulose). But energy-rich grasses look like the best bet. Ceres, which is based in Thousand Oaks, California, has taken several species of fast-growing grass, notably switchgrass and sorghum, and supercharged them to grow even faster and put on more weight by using a mixture of selective breeding and genetic engineering. Part of America’s prairies, the firm hopes, will revert to grassland and provide the cellulose that biofuels will need. The Energy Biosciences Institute that BP is funding at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, is working on hybrid miscanthus, an ornamental grass that can produce truly remarkable yields.

Read the entire article here.

Third Time’s the Charm, or Three Strikes and You’re Out? Third-Generation Biofuels Are Here

Sam Shrank Revolt 2010-11-01

This entry is the latest in a series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

Ethanol from corn and sugar cane? Beyond passé at this point, with major environmental, land use, and food security concerns.

Second-generation biofuels, made from non-food crops and wastes? So 2008.

The next big thing in biofuels? Algae.

So-called third-generation biofuels have begun to receive serious attention. Biofuels can technically be made from just about any plant material, and some of the advantages of algae are obvious: it wouldn’t compete for arable land, for example, as it is grown in water, and it grows like, well, a weed, allowing for incredible yields.

The two avenues of third-generation development being considered so far are microalgae (pond scum, etc) and macroalgae (seaweed). Research is going into both harvesting algae from its natural environment and creating artificial growing environments.

Various algae have been discussed academically as a potential fuel since 1955. The U.S. Department of Energy has looked into fuels from microalgae since 1978, although the Aquatic Species Program, as it was called, was discontinued in 1996. Since then, various government bodies, including the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Department of Agriculture, have continued to look into algal biofuels.

Read this entire article here.