OMG(EGA) Algae!

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.

Photo of Public Perception of Ethanol http://africagreenmedia.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/504127018288a.jpg
http://www.heat-inc.com/Heating_Industry_Applications/ManufacturingEthanol/Ethenol1full.jpg
Real Ethanol Production http://www.heat-inc.com/Heating_Industry_Applications/ManufacturingEthanol/Ethenol1full.jpg

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.

Basic Description of Algae Harvesting Process  http://www.personal.psu.edu/nyg5099/blogs/worldcampus/algae.jpg
Description of the cycle of Algae fuel production- Carbon Neutral  http://news.algaeworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/algae-biodiesel.jpg

The Solution

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.

Scientific Description of OMEGA design http://www.algaeindustrymagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/OMEGA-system.jpg

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.

An overall image of the benefits of the OMEGA system http://cdn.phys.org/newman/csz/news/800/2012/nasashowsoff.jpg

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.

What a possible OMEGA system may look like were it to be installed. http://www.algaeindustrymagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/hypothetical-OMEGA.jpg

Corn Versus Algae 

A Comparison of Biofuels diagrammed in EROI versus GHG emissions. http://d35brb9zkkbdsd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/algae-biofuels-GHG-EROI-555x706.jpg
A Comparison of Biofuels diagrammed in EROI versus GHG emissions. http://d35brb9zkkbdsd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/algae-biofuels-GHG-EROI-555×706.jpg

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.

An Image Depicting the BP Oil Spill http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01661/GULF-OIL_1661968c.jpg

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.

An Indoor Algae Farm http://alcnetwork.com/images/algae-biofuel-900×360.jpg?1445990400032

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.

The “Controversy” of Hydrofracking

Many citizens of the United States have heard of the term fracking due to some exposure to it. Although the knowledge of the term fracking is popular, a seldom amount of people actually understand the process, as well as the benefits and the possible drawbacks. Through this miscommunication, there has been a resulting population with certain thoughts that tend to be incorrect. This misconception about the process has led to decisions being made that may have been incorrect in deciding how to proceed. The reason that this vagueness is present is due to the fact there has yet to be a true, in-depth analysis of all of the benefits and drawbacks of the process. Therefore, although there have been many claimed drawbacks to the process of hydrofracking, there has yet to be conclusive evidence that this new energy producer should be ruled out as a possible solution to overseas reliance for energy. Furthermore, in order to get a true population gauge on hydrofracking, you need to ensure that all of the population fully understands the process. Simply put, there are too many false ideas present to automatically rule it out as an unsafe method of creating energy while also considering the advantages to it.

 

As previously mentioned, the first way to help fully understand hydrofracking, and the process that it performs, is to educate the public on the process of extracting the natural gas. To begin, the goal of hydrofracking is to pull natural gas out of shale formations underneath the surface of the Earth. Specifically, hydrofracking in the United States has been focused on two areas of major shale formation in the Utica and Marcellus shale deposits. The process of hydrofracking involves creating a well that goes, on average, about 1000 feet below the outer level of Earth. Once the well has reached this depth, wells then change direction from vertical to horizontal as the shale is not extremely wide; but rather, a very long stretch of shale. Because of this, the horizontal wells allow the drillers to access more shale deposits. Next, the drillers bring in trucks that inject a liquid called a propant that is a mixture of certain liquids, which has the goal of making the original perforations bigger, while also leaving the sand it carries behind. By remaining in the shale deposits, the sand serves to hold open rock letting the methane and other natural gasses escape, and travel up the well, to be collected by the drillers. The drillers repeat this process all along the horizontal portion of the well. Once the drillers have created as many pads as possible within the well, they began the extraction process. The extraction process consists of water first flowing through the well, followed by the natural gas or oil. The water that first comes back up the well is in approximately 30 percent of what was originally injected.

http://marketing.enerdynamics.com/Energy-Insider/2011/images/marcellus_hydraulic_graphic_090514_000.gif

 

Although the process of hydrofracking is clearly mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is stated from a perspective that is aimed to be neutral. Thus, a highlight of all of the perceived negative aspects of the process are to follow. The most well known negative effect of hydrofracking is the ability to set your water on fire. As seen through the video below, featured prominently in the movie “Gasland”, hydrofracking apparently has the ability to force gases to infiltrate and contaminate the water supply of areas surrounding the drilling location. However, a subsequent report(, written by the State of Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee, showed the the movie had a major flaw in blaming this gas leak on fracking. The Committee begins by stating the difference between biogenic and thermogenic methane. The key difference for the sake of fracking is in the creation and composition of each of these two gasses. Biogenic gas is created naturally through the decomposition of buried organic material, and is composed of primarily methane and ethanol. Meanwhile, thermogenic methane is created through the fracturing of rocks that secrete the gas, this form of methane features many other different gasses in the composition. The reason that the makeup of the gasses matter is because it allows scientists and labs to collect samples and figure out the probable source of the methane if it contaminates an area. Through this process, Colorado was able to test multiple sites featured in Gasland and found that the primary source of methane was biogenic contamination not thermogenic. In one case, the tests did reveal that there was a mixture of thermogenic and biogenic methane, and thus, the two parties agreed to a settlement. Therefore, there is a clear public misconception about the damage done to the surrounding area while fracking is occurring. The reason this can be said is because of the widespread audience and acceptance of all that was presented; meanwhile, the counter movement to this movie is relatively unheard of, as seen in the low name recognition of the counter-film, “Truthland”.

 

These facts being stated, there is other evidence surrounding fracking that can easily be seen as a drawback. The biggest drawback in fracking can be seen through one key issue, injection fluid. The reason that the argument can be made that this is the biggest issue is due to the fact that not only does it show environmental damage; but rather, it also showcases the unregulated side of fracking that poses a potential damage to not only the environment but also the communities. Many believe that the water injected into the wells is monitored due to the precautions set out by the Safe Drinking Water Act(SDWA); but in reality, the SDWA has a provision in it that directly states that the injected water is not controlled, nor is it considered an underwater injection. The Act does still control the injection of diesel fuels, requiring companies to receive approval from the EPA before proceeding with injections involving diesel. Moreover, there is a glaring problem in the idea of the water that is extracted from the ground. This water is commonly refereed to as flowback, and poses the risk of destroying environments if mishandled, as it often is. Flowback water can contain a myriad of toxic medicals, brine and a myriad of radioactive materials. As discussed in this article, there are methods being put to use that recycles the water; however, the amount of flowback water being produced the can not be recycled is exorbitant. This water, more often than not, is disposed of in a manner that is not environmentally friendly. Of these possible solutions for dealing with this water, the options are as follows: pay a large amount of money, digging deep into your profit margins, to correctly treat and dispose of the water; secretly treat the water in a sub-par manner, highly illegal, and then dump the water into another body of water or into the ground; finally, a commonly chosen solution, is to take the water to another state and inject it deep into the ground, legal, but destroying the ecosystem. The reason that the final solution is chosen the most often is due to the fact that although this method seems to have a high overhead, with movement and injection costs, it also allows companies an easy way out that nine times out of ten will not have any further costs to the, unlike other treatment methods.

The makeup of an average injection fluid. http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/07/08/science/frack/frack-blog480.jpg

As seen in the previous paragraph, there are currently problems associated with the way hydrofracking is presently carried out; however, due to the negative public thoughts associated with hydrofracking, the research needed to help improve these methods has ceased. Fortunately, there has still been a major discussion of the hydrofracking process put forth by the MIT Technology Review. This discussion brings forth the idea of substituting the water used in hydrofracking with gas, specifically carbon dioxide. This process of using carbon dioxide can be just as effective as water, and has already been used by certain energy companies but only in small settings. The reason that this process has not been used more openly is due to the fact that in the current access to carbon dioxide, it would not be cost effective to change over to solely this method. However, there is a clear correlation between the public distaste for hydrofracking in general and the inability to research and create trial periods for this method across the country. This method is not proven to be completely effective, but in order to move forward there needs to be more acceptance of this process by the public.

An example of a flowback water holding site. http://www.swarthmore.edu/sites/default/files/styles/main_page_image/public/assets/images/environmental-studies-capstone/Overspray%20Frack%20Water%20Waste%20Pit.jpg?itok=ZkiobGlX
Therefore, there is not enough conclusive evidence to state that the process of hydrofracking is more negative or positive all inclusive of the environment as well as society. The reason that hydrofracking needs to remain as an option to be thoroughly researched is because of all that this newfound energy source could yield for the country. The resource potential of the United States, although not as strong as China’s, is extremely high. This strong resource potential clearly shows that hydrofracking in an improved manner could take America’s reliance on other countries overseas down to levels never before seen, thus driving down the rate of energy supplies and strengthening the American economy as well. This independence is shown by the graph below. The graph, featuring predictions from the United States Energy Information Association, shows that hydrofracking from shale deposits could increase to be worth 31% of the United States’ energy reliance. Furthermore, hydrofracking is beneficial as it shifts more consumers away from other methods of energy burning to natural gas, which burns in a manner that is more environmentally friendly than that of products such as coal.
http://marketing.enerdynamics.com/Energy-Insider/2011/images/natgasimgEIA.png

Due to both the stated drawbacks and benefits of hydrofracking, there needs to be more conclusive data researched and studied to see if hydrofracking in some, if any, capacity should be implemented back into the United States. As the public misconceptions of hydrofracking rise, as well as the acknowledgement of true problems, the process has declined in popularity as more and more companies wanted to distance themselves from this negative image. However, these misconceptions have been created due to the popularization of materials that were misguided in their presentation of associated issues. Due to this blurring of truth, as well as the failure to correctly present the truth when it was found, the process of hydrofracking was placed in a negative light. This negative light led to the destruction of innovation in the hydrofracking field. Thus, when presented with a possible solution to a real problem in the process, energy companies were unwilling to accept it and put it into action. Furthermore, this is the essential issue currently plaguing hydrofracking, not that it is a bad process; but rather, it has not been fully evaluated for all that it can provide. Similarly, there needs to be a reopening of the hydrofracking debate, given all of the new information that has come to light in recent years, to decide whether or not the process is, or can become, one that is more beneficial then destructive for both the communities reliant on it, as well as the ecosystem supporting it.