Saturday, June 14, 2008

The continuing rise in oil and gas prices has spurred a widespread interest in gasoline alternatives, primarily biofuels. Chief among these are ethanol and biodiesel, which can now be found in gas stations across the country as additives to fuel at the pump. But there is a fundamental problem with most of the ethanol and biodiesel produced today; the crops (and farming methods) that are used to produce these fuels require very high petroleum inputs, enough to make them unrealistic for anything but a fuel supplement. This is where algae comes into play.

The interest in algae as a biofuel source is largely due to the recognition of this humble pond plant's amazing properties. Depending on the species and growing conditions, algae have an oil content ranging between 2% and 40% (though some estimates go higher). A number of other fuel crops such as canola, mustard, and palm have oil contents equal to or exceeding 40%, but what makes algae unique is that it requires almost no nutrient input and can be grown on non arable land. As long as it has water, air, and sunlight, algae will grow. In fact, a lack of nutrients increases the oil content in algae. But what makes algae truly amazing is that its primary nutrient source is carbon dioxide. Algae, as it turns out, sequesters more carbon than almost any other plant. Of course if it is used for biodiesel, some of the carbon dioxide will be re-released into the atmosphere when it is burned, but this presents a far more sustainable solution than other oil crops.

When grown in a pond, algae can produce as many as 10,000 gallons per acre. Compare that to palm oil, which yields around 600 gallons per acre and you will start to why algae seems so promising. Because it requires so little, algae can be grown almost anywhere there is sunlight.

While algae may seem like green gold, growing algae in open ponds has a few major downfalls. For one, it is highly susceptible to contamination by other species of algae. Contamination could potentially cause significant loss in oil yields. Weather can also play a major factor in reducing yields or even killing a crop.

But two companies Valcent Products and Global Green Solutions have teamed up to find a solution to these issues. Together, the two companies have developed Vertigro, a closed loop system for growing algae. The system grows algae in a vertically contained bio-reactor which the companies claim will significantly reduce risk of contamination. Even if there is contamination, Vertigro's large vertical modules (similar in appearance to a wall of ziplock bags) make it possible to isolate contamination before it spreads throughout the whole system.

The company also claims that it can yield upto 20,000 gallons per acre per year with the technology, double the capacity of open pond systems. According to Valcent CEO Glen Kurtz "if we took one tenth of the state of New Mexico and converted it into algae production, we could meet all of the energy demands of the United States." While this may be a lofty claim, it is hard to deny the lure of such promising technology. The real key to success now is to find investors who are willing to put their stakes in the technology.


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