While routinely searching the web for interesting energy stories I came across a headline stating that an investment shift will lead to the algae biofuel market increasing 43.1% annually over the short term. This is great news, I think…wait, I actually have no idea what impact the algae biodiesel market has on our search for alternative fuels. With that said, it is about time to learn a little bit about biofuels and biodiesel as an alternative to petroleum fuels. Considering that algae garnered my initial interest I focused on the fuel that can be created from this seemingly unimportant pond scum.
According to HowStuffWorks.com, “biodiesel is an alternative or additive to standard diesel fuel that is made from biological ingredients instead of petroleum (or crude oil).” In the case of algae, the oil is extracted from the plant through a process called transesterification. “In this process, the fat or oil is first purified and then reacted with an alcohol, usually methanol (CH3OH) or ethanol (CH3CH2OH) in the presence of a catalyst such as potassium hydroxide (KOH) or sodium hydroxide (NaOH). When this happens, the triacylglycerol is transformed to form esters and glycerol. The esters that remain are what we then call biodiesel.”
Ok, enough technical talk for today. Here is a list of the most interesting things I discovered about biodiesel.
- History – Rudolf Diesel envisioned vegetable oil as a fuel source for his engine in the early 1900’s. He actually demonstrated his peanut oil powered engine at the World Exhibition in Paris, France. Henry Ford also expected his Model T to run off ethanol, a corn oil.
- Algae as a fuel source was first explored in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter.
- Biodiesel can be created from a variety of natural sources, including soybeans, flax, mustard, rapeseed, sunflower, palm, hemp, jatropha, pennycress, algae, animal fats, and waste vegetable oil.
- One acre of algae can produce 100,000 gallons of oil per year – HowStuffWorks.com states that “a 100-acre algae biodiesel plant could potentially produce 10 million gallons of biodiesel in a single year. Experts estimate it will take 140 billion gallons of biodiesel per year to completely replace petroleum-based products. To reach this goal, algae biodiesel companies would need about 95 million acres of land to build biodiesel plants.” In comparison , with other biodiesel (corn or soy) we would need billions of acres to replace petroleum.
- Creating biofuel from algae also reduces carbon dioxide pollution. Algae consumes carbon dioxide during the biodiesel production process leading to algae biodiesel manufacturers building their plants near energy manufacturing plants that release a lot of carbon dioxide.
- Alternative Biodiesel – Can coffee grounds be processed as a biofuel? According to researchers at the University of Nevada-Reno, coffee grounds can contain up to 20% oil. After some processing, the oil from these grounds meet the standards set by the ASTM International(American Society for Testing and Materials) for biodiesel. They estimated that if all the waste grounds generated by the world’s coffee drinkers were gather and reprocessed, the yield would amount to 2.9 million gallons of diesel fuel each year.
- In addition to biodiesel, algae can be used to produce hydrogen and biomass, two other fuel sources. It can also be used as nutrient rich food source, a fertilizer, a stabilizing agent, and a pollution control substance.
- U.S biodiesel production is growing rapidly – From 28 million gallons in 2004 to 245 billion gallons in 2006. The study that grabbed my interest came from SBI that expects algae biofuels to see market growth of 43.1% annually.
For more information on algae biodiesel I would recommend visiting the How Stuff Works comprehensive guide on all things biodiesel – How Algae Biodiesel Works.
Also, check out this nice video from the U.S. Department of Energy: