You know that disgusting green gunk you see on the bottom of some boats and lakes? I ask you to think about that in a new light- not as something that you do not even want to touch, but as something that you could use to run your car or heat your house? Is that our future? Possibly. When thinking of biofuel’s true definition you find that it is a fuel derived from a living product, which commonly brings corn to the front of most people’s minds. However, there are multiple problems with corn as a fuel source which need to be considered in full, and compared to other possible solutions or substitutes for these inputs.
Although better than using standard fossil fuels, corn produced fuel, commonly called ethanol does have drawbacks that make the search for a better alternative necessary. The process of the production of ethanol is accomplished through yeast and sugars. First, there is the creation of a solution that is highly concentrated with yeast, which are able to process sugars. This sugar is produced through milling of corn in one of two methods, wet and dry milling. The main difference between these two processes is in the first step of the processing. In wet milling, the corn grain is first soaked in water to soften the grain which helps in separating the starch fiber, and germ. Thus, in both processes when simple sugars are added to the mixture, the yeast is able to produce two by-products as the result of the reaction, carbon dioxide and ethanol. For each pound of sugars, the yeast can produce a half pound of both ethanol and carbon dioxide. In the scheme of corn production on a yearly basis, ethanol production accounted for 1.4 billion of the 11 billion bushels of corn produced, which produced over 4 million gallons of ethanol. This ethanol can then be mixed with regular gasoline up to 10 parts ethanol, and 90 parts traditional gasoline, commonly referred to as E10, and still be used as regular gasoline in most cars currently on the road.
Although this process does seem effective, and is able to occur at what most would consider a renewable rate, there are certain problems that need to be addressed. Most importantly, the carbon dioxide production rate of this process is on a one to one proportion as the ethanol production. This is a problem that needs to be addressed as we attempt to lower our emissions. Furthermore, the growing aspect of the corn also needs to be addressed as fertilizers, land area and water is used to produce the corn. All of these present issues, specifically fertilizers as they taint water resources and cause damage to ecosystems as this impacted water enters the groundwater and the chemicals begin to impact more water resources.
Given the above stated problems in the production of ethanol, there needs to be research towards finding an alternative biofuel that is just as useful and productive. One of the areas that has benefitted from this search for a new biofuel is in algal fuel. Algal fuel is achieved through the growing of algae, which grow at an extremely fast rate, while some of the fastest growing algae finish with nearly 50% of their weight coming from the oil it has produced. The way that the algae produces oil is through natural processes that are the result of reactions. As the algae grow, they absorb sunlight, carbon dioxide and water, with this absorption, the algae begin to grow, as well as produce oil within themselves. This process sounds simple, and the process itself is simple; however, it comes with its own set of drawback, but some of them have already begun to be solved.
One of these solutions is the project called Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae(OMEGA). OMEGA is a project designed by NASA that solves many of the problems that algal fuel production faces. One problem, whose solution OMEGA possesses, is the need for land area. With traditional algae farms, it is hard to figure out where to locate the farms as they tend to need an amount of space that could become costly in highly populated cities. The solution that OMEGA presents for this problem is by hosting the algae farm offshore. OMEGA’s plan calls for the use of cheap inexpensive semi-permeable plastic bags. Within these bags, the plan also accounts for a solution to a problem outside of biofuels. OMEGA plans to inject these bags with human waste water allowing for the waste water to be consumed and purified by the algae, and passed back out into the ocean in a cleaner state, while also helping the algae grow. These bags are then connected to each other in a looped pattern, and attached to a floating dock to allow for a certain degree of movement with the waves. Therefore, the process of algae production would look something similar to first pumping a mixture of algae and waste water into the self contained unit. Then, the algae will begin to naturally feed on the wastewater, taking it in, while also absorbing solar power and carbon dioxide. Through this, the algae will grow, and with it, the amount of oil it contains grows, until it is ready to be harvested. At this point, the researchers ran into two problems. First, they realized that they needed to find a way to keep feeding the algae as they had now consumed all of the carbon dioxide and had large amounts of oxygen left within the system. The solution to this problem was to construct a column of sorts that allowed the algae to flow through the system then to fall through the system removing the oxygen. Then, after bubbling the wastewater, which produced more carbon dioxide, the wastewater would be pumped back into the system to repeat the process over. Another benefit to this column is that it allows the algae to settle along the bottom of the tank. As the algae settle, it can be transported into a new tank that allows the algae to be floated to the surface and then harvested.
Benefits to the OMEGA Project
Given the design stated in the above paragraph, there are multiple benefits to this system. As previously stated, this proposal would solve or help lessen the impact of: the issues of carbon dioxide emissions, algae requiring too much land area, issues surrounding waste water disposal and the need for more freshwater, and even help ecosystems as the algae are natural and will only add to the ecosystem with the nutrients left from the cleaned wastewater. Moreover, and yet to be explained, the self-contained part of the proposal is very important to preventing the algae from becoming an invasive species. An invasive species is one that is introduced to an ecosystem and begins to reproduce and destroy the ecosystem. To prevent this from happening, the researchers were able to use freshwater algae that will die if the bag breaks as they can not survive in saltwater. Moreover, the wastewater that would be released into the bay will be no worse than what is currently being pumped into most water systems, proving that the addition of this system can do no harm. However, one of the biggest achievements that researchers have been able to make is the efficiency of the algae. Through studying algae and finding the type that will produce at the fastest rate with the highest yield, researchers have found that a farm of just about 2 square miles could produce over two and a half million gallons of fuel annually. To put this number in perspective, on that amount of land, you could produce approximately a quarter of a bushel of corn.
Drawbacks to OMEGA
Given all of the above stated benefits to this plan, there are two main drawbacks. The first drawback, is the construction of the plastic bags. In order to keep the project economically feasible, the plastic needs to be readily available and in that, inexpensive to use. The main problem with this is that most of the plastics that fit this bill need petroleum to be produced. In an attempted solution to this problem, the OMEGA system presents the idea of reusing the plastic in agriculture scenes as plastic is already being used by farmers to improve efficiency of their fields. Although this does serve as a temporary solution to the problem, this will not function as a permanent solution and needs to be addressed. Another issue that the proposal runs into is that not all oceans are suitable for it. This meaning that at the current time, there is no feasible way that it can be incorporated into every ocean or bay in the world. In order for the OMEGA system to be implemented in a given location, the area needs to be either naturally or artificially protected, and located close to a wastewater facility plant so that there is something to feed the algae.
Corn Versus Algae
Depicted in the above graph is a demonstration of greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions versus energy return on investment(EROI) for multiple different fuels. As can clearly be seen, gasoline has the highest average of both GHG emissions as well as EROI. This also does not account the fact that oil is getting harder and harder to find, which requires more and more drilling therefore driving the amount of GHG emissions produced to trend upward over time. Furthermore, in looking at this graph we can see that corn ethanol is barely better in GHG emissions, but much worse in EROI with an average lying below one. Because EROI is a ratio of energy put in to energy received, this EROI means that on average, the amount of energy produced from corn ethanol is less that the amount of energy put in. Meanwhile, the GHG emissions for algae, labeled in this graph as Scenario 1 and Scenario 3, are near a fifth of gasoline, and two fifths of corn ethanol. At the same time, the EROI for algae is within the range of 2-3, thus showing why algal fuel is more productive than corn ethanol.
An important idea to not when discussing this chart is that it does not study the OMEGA project, just a specific plan that is currently being implemented. Unfortunately, because the OMEGA project represents only one specific, advanced type of solution, there is not enough evidence to form a conclusive chart similar to the one depicted above. Although this may sound bad at first, when you study the OMEGA project, and break it down in way that I have mentioned above, a less exact graph can be hypothesized to represent the GHG emissions vs. EROI comparison for the OMEGA project. The result would be very similar to the chart above except for one distinct change. The OMEGA project possesses the ability to absorb/take advantage of more carbon that would shift the amount of carbon produced, when looking at the process holistically, to the left. Finally, possibly just as important, the corn ethanol number fails to take into account the process of clearing the land that corn needs. Due to the need for corn, for both food and biofuel, more land will need to be cleared to allow for farming of corn. This clearing of land, beyond the emissions caused by the machinery, will lead to less trees and plants to remove carbon dioxide from the environment.
Finally, the process of converting algae to fuel as opposed to corn to fuel is much easier and therefore produces less emissions as well. Although algae can be processed the same way as corn, Algae also has the ability to be drilled, or be mixed with chemicals to produce the oil. Although many believe that this is where algae fails due to costs, there is clearly room for improvement that may lower the cost. One example of how further research is lowering the cost of producing fuel from algae is seen in this article. The article demonstrates a process that allows the algae to be processed in a continuous fashion processing 1.5 L of algae an hour. Furthermore, the results of this process are much more useful than corn ethanol. The process creates crude oil, fuel gas, clean water, and nutrients needed to produce more algae. Therefore, as you produce algae, you are also producing more resources to grow more algae. The issue of cost is the biggest roadblock facing algal fuel, but this research clearly demonstrates that there are places where costs can be replaced, and that production on a large scale is viable.
Why I Care and Why You Should Too
We all know that fossil fuels are not our future, they are limited, and they produce emissions that will only further destroy our environment. In algae there is a future that is possible for us to pursue. It allows us to remove carbon from the atmosphere why still producing the energy that we need to keep up with our lifestyles. Through the years, many big sponsors have publicly removed their support for fossil fuels, specifically big oil, to get behind new cleaner resources that many believe are the future. One of the biggest loss of support was seen in the transition of the former BP executive, Cynthia Warner. The BP executive realized that big oil was no longer the option, Warner knew that the dangers were not worth the payoff anymore. Not only was the environment being hurt, but people were dying due to the actions they had ben brought to in order to keep recovering oil. As the resources were depleted, more and more money was being spent on infrastructure to dig deeper only to capture the same amount. This infrastructure became more and more unstable resulting in more and more incidents. Evidence of this is seen in the article when it is discussed that since 1999, BP has had to pay over $725 million dollars in fines, but still are not making movements to prevent the disasters.
After discussing her time at BP, Warner begins to discuss how she is not the only one to be moving away from big oil; but rather, there are a good amount of former BP employees who decided to leave BP in pursuit of more environmentally friendly fuel sources. Although the post remains generally vague to maintain a certain amount of secrecy, the post hints at the idea that the company, Sapphire, knows what it is doing and it will be able to succeed. Sapphire’s plan is to attempt a test facility that will produce 100 barrels a day to be sent to a refinery. If this is successful, their plan is to pursue a set-up that would produce about 10000 barrels a day in order to actually be considered by refineries as a supplier. This experiment will clearly demonstrate the viability of algal fuel as our future, and is a project to be closely monitored.
Given all of the previous information stated, there is a clear need for more research. Corn based ethanol is a fuel source that is energy negative due to the amount of energy needed to grow, process, and turn the corn into ethanol. Furthermore, as more researchers realize this fact, the algal fuel field is growing, and with it, there is new information by the day. With this new information, and wider spread acceptance of it as a biofuel, the problem of algal fuels could be solved. Admittedly, the OMEGA system will never be able to supply energy to the world; however, it does present a system that is easy to collaborate within. The OMEGA system offers the ability to be paired with a corporation that is producing too much wastewater and/or carbon dioxide, and draw funds through an emission tax program of sorts. Furthermore, facilities fitted with the OMEGA system could take advantage of the infrastructure by installing solar panels on different sections, as well taking advantage of other renewable sources that are naturally present such as wind and tidal power, all of which is demonstrated in the above picture. In conclusion, the OMEGA system is not the end-all-be-all, it is a piece of the intricate puzzle that we must solve in order to allow ourselves a future that is both longer and brighter.