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Potential for algae to transform the world economy 54

Potential for algae to transform the world economy
Robert Tulip

1. The world economy relies on the movement of carbon from the earth’s crust into the atmosphere as its main source of energy. Burning of fossil fuel is unsustainable for two reasons: peak oil and climate change. Algae biofuel is the only realistic option to fix these problems on global scale.
2. Oil extraction rates have already passed their peak, with new reserves not adequate to supply growing demand. It is essential for political and economic stability that new bulk liquid fuel sources are established well in advance of any supply crisis. 
3. The climate change impact of carbon emissions is more controversial, but the fact is that CO2 emission rates are increasing, not decreasing, in order to power economic growth for an expanding world population. NASA scientists say that if most of the carbon now in the crust was shifted to the atmosphere, Earth would become like Venus, a CO2 hothouse where life would be impossible. Just shifting a fraction of existing carbon into the air is already causing upheaval in global climate. The accelerating rate of emissions under business as usual means that climate change will become even more rapid until a systemic solution is implemented using new technology.
4. In response to these twin problems, peak oil and climate change, biofuel has been proposed as a means to supply sustainable energy. The first generation of biofuel, ethanol from grain, actually produces more net emissions than fossil fuel, while also displacing food crops and driving up food prices. The need is for a new generation of biofuel, a source of abundant liquid fuel that can be produced using renewable natural energy sources, that does not compete with food production for land, and that is rapidly scalable, simple to operate and good for the environment. Algae is the only crop that meets all these needs.
5. Transformation of the world economy to sustainable energy production from algae requires development of innovative new technology. The most promising method for bulk fuel production from algae is likely to emerge from the work of the US National Aeronautical and Space Administration, NASA, in their OMEGA Project - Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae.
6. Dr. Jonathan Trent, chief scientist for OMEGA, recently explained the status of the project (link). OMEGA plans to grow algae by pumping wastewater from sewage plants into floating fabric bags located in sheltered coastal bays. OMEGA has identified San Francisco Bay as an optimal test site, with readily available nutrient supply adjacent to suitable pilot locations, as well as abundant human capital in the innovation hub of Silicon Valley.
7. Sewage contains high levels of nutrients, and can be treated offshore in floating farms to produce algae and fresh water, instead of just dumping the treated waste at sea. Dr. Trent has shown that once the sewage is fully converted to algae, it can be simply processed to thick slush by putting it in a floating bag of a material that allows fresh water to escape by osmosis into the surrounding sea while retaining the algae cells in the bag. The concentrated algae is then a valuable commercial bulk commodity.
8. Algae cells are mostly made of oil, protein and carbohydrate. A number of methods are now in development to extract the oil, which in preferred species is about half the mass of the cell. Algae oil can easily be converted to diesel fuel for use in transport and heating using the same methods now in operation in biofuel plants. The remainder of the algae biomass can be used for fertilizer, food and fibre. The aim is to produce abundant low cost commodities that will enrich the world and put the global economy on to an ecologically sustainable path. 
9. Algae, growing in shallow warm seas, was the original source for the fossil deposits of petroleum in the earth’s crust. Algae farms can replicate this original natural production process in a fraction of the time, at commercially competitive cost, and in a way that will be good for the environment, the climate and the world economy. 
10. The OMEGA method mixes the algae with nutrient and CO2 inside a floating bag using wave energy. The nutrient source water and CO2 can be pumped in and out using tidal power. The entire operation needs no fossil fuel at all, as it uses natural sources and produces its own operational energy by converting sunlight into algae.
11. If CO2 is pumped into the base of the algae farm together with nutrients, and drizzled up through the algated water, the CO2 will provide buoyancy for the farm and create a cultured environment to maximize productivity.
12. Algae produced from sewage will not survive in the open ocean as it will die on contact with salt water. This provides an initial guarantee against environmental damage. Any spilled algae will be eaten by fish. 
13. The OMEGA pilot will examine risks such as shipping, lightning and storm. It appears these are readily solved. Signage can separate farms from shipping lanes, ability to patch any torn fabric can repair lightning damage, and ability to sink the entire system simply by expelling CO2 from the base can protect against rough weather. The ocean is still just below the surface. 
14. Considering the potential to expand from the San Francisco OMEGA pilot project, one feasible plan is the co-location of electricity stations with coastal algae farms and sewage plants, with all the CO2 from the power plant going into the algae production, and the algae being dried and used as fuel in a closed loop with zero emissions. This was proposed on land by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the 1970s, but the project was shelved due to lack of interest from the petrochemical industry.
15. If all the emissions from power plants, mines, cement factories and the like were piped into algae farms, the rise in global CO2 level could be stabilized and even reversed. Algae, produced in this way, can replace the need for geological sequestration of C02. The best way to sequester carbon is to use it as a valuable commodity to grow algae in bags at sea. 
16. My estimate is that all fossil fuel could be replaced by algae grown on 0.1% of the world ocean, 500,000 square kilometers. Optimal initial locations include pilot sites such as San Francisco Bay, and other sheltered shallow warm waters such as in the Gulf of Mexico and the northern coast of Australia. Just one mining project in Australia, the Gorgon Gas Project on Barrow Island, proposes to produce three million tons of CO2 each year as a byproduct. Instead of pumping it below ground as worthless waste, algae farms can use this CO2 as a resource for energy production. 
17. In heavily polluted industrial environments such as in China, pumping of power station emissions into algae farms could rapidly reduce air pollution. Such pumping can be entirely powered by tidal energy in coastal locations. Concentrated CO2 from inland locations can be barged down rivers in fabric balloons to coastal algae farms.
18. Another excellent potential test site is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The reef is now at high risk from climate change due to warming ocean water temperature killing the coral. Algae farms located near the reef can contain all the heat from the sun in the surface layer, providing local cooling of ocean water beneath them, reducing the overall temperature of the reef water, protecting the coral, processing phosphorus from agricultural runoff, and providing a sustainable food source for fish.
19. The OMEGA pilot project in San Francisco offers the opportunity to consider even more productive large scale methods, such as salt water algae that draws its nutrient by tidal power from the deep rich water 500 meters below the surface. Strains of salt water algae can be produced that will dominate within the cultured farm environment but will not grow in the open ocean. 
20. Tidal energy for pumping can mimic the upwelling of deep cold ocean currents that are now the nutrient source for the world’s richest fish grounds. Eaten by fish, the algae product from an offshore farm will rapidly increase the protein biomass of the surrounding ocean, providing a major boost to food production and protecting fish stocks.
21. Plant husbandry methods can achieve high yielding strains. If an algae farm has multiple parallel tracks along which water flows, the output can be tested for desired criteria, and the most productive batch can be used to seed the system, to outcompete wild strains and maximize yield. If CO2 is pumped into the water in the farm, new algae varieties will rapidly evolve that will grow well in the cultured environment, but will not survive in the open sea. My view is that such plant husbandry techniques are preferable to genetic engineering, and that all research and development should be highly precautionary regarding any risks. My estimate is that an initial yield goal of one cubic meter of oil per hectare per day can rapidly be multiplied many times over through intensive research and development.
22. Algae provides the only realistic way to actually drive down atmospheric CO2 levels by replacing current energy sources at global scale. Focus on technological innovation is far better than existing proposed climate response methods that concentrate on tax reform. While it is likely that government subsidy would speed up the establishment of a large scale commercial algae production industry, my assessment is that the methods described here should be commercially competitive against fossil fuels on current market prices, and even more so when the environmental damage of fossil fuels is considered. 
23. There is no point in climate schemes that do not use market forces to transform the global economy away from its short term addiction to fossil fuels. Production of fuel, fertilizer, fibre and food from algae will rapidly address fuel security and food security. Resources are needed to expand current pilot projects. Equity investment will be highly profitable and socially responsible, establishing a sustainable new industry that will fix some of the biggest problems facing the world.
Fri May 06 2011 10:03:58 PM by RobertTulip ocean  |  OMEGA  |  NASA  |  algae biofuel  |  climate change 2489 views

Comments - 1

  • Wed June 08 2011 06:20:20 PM

    Robert,Excellent article with a more comprehensive discussion than most.  I was too quick to dismiss the NASA algae project when I first heard of it.  I still have some fears that the "bags" of the system may stronger than the tests to which we mere humans have subjected them.  The sea is a harsh mistress, she might have larger challenges yet to these bags durability.Using fresh water algae inside is a clever "fail safe" mechanism, because leaking algae which encounter the salinity of the sea will likely die off immediately, but again, Nature has a nearly infinite capability of adaptability, and even fractional chunks of the fresh water algae might be absorbed by the marine algae that eat them, and end up producing species we never dreams could exist.I am not trying to be discouraging.  It could be a valuable and very viable system and I certainly wish them well.  I am saying we need to not overlook hazards along the way in our rush to implement a system like this that has world scale output potential.
    Sincerely,Stafford "Doc" Williamson

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