May 30, 2008

Algae has potential, but more research needs to be done

Algae production will be a very important source of feedstocks in the future, but Jim Sears, president of Colorado-based A2BE Carbon Capture LLC, said there are still major obstacles that need to be overcome.

According to one source there may be as many as 200 companies developing algae as a biofuel feedstock, Sears said. By his own estimate, there may be as many as 35 viable companies working in the field. Despite all the investments and excitement in the industry, commercial production of algae oil is still a dream. “With all those companies chasing this, no one has successfully commercialized algae,” he continued. “No one yet knows how to do this in a way that makes sense in the long term. However, there are some very large companies working on this so I am confident that we will be there.”

A2BE is developing a system that will be marketed to electrical generation facilities and other carbon dioxide emitters as a way to capture greenhouse gas for sequestration or conversion into biofuels. Sears envisions that eventually there will be a national grid similar to the Interstate Highway system where carbon dioxide would be collected and transported to huge algae farms for conversion into algae-based biomass.

There are more than 200,000 known species of algae and scientists say that is a fraction of the total species. They are as different as field mice and zebras, Sears said. Whether the intended result is oil for biofuels or protein for livestock or people, there is a species of algae that can maximize production of the desired product. “We add solar energy and through the miracle of photosynthesis, we get hydrocarbons,” Sears said. “These hydrocarbons can be separated into products for industry such as fertilizer that contains nitrogen that is fixed in the process or methane that can be used to make just about any chemical or plastic.” Other potential products include transportation fuels and industrial oxygen, which Sears said can make any combustion based process much more efficient.

Sears framed the production of algae as an industrial process for converting carbon dioxide into fixed carbon compounds. A2BE’s system will use plastic bags 40 feet wide, 400 feet long and 12 inches thick. Motorized rollers clean the bags and agitate the water to mix the algae to make sure it receives adequate sunlight. “These units will cover about a half acre and will consume about 100 tons of carbon dioxide per year,” Sears said. The enclosed systems avoid the problems associated with open pond production such as contamination, evaporation and temperature control.

Separating the algae from the water can be a technical challenge, Sears said. Rather than try to design a system from the ground up, he is looking to natural algae collectors to do the work for him, such as brine shrimp or small crustaceans known as copepods that are natural algae collectors. After the animals eat the algae, they are easier to filter out of the water than the algae. “The animals and algae synergistically work with each other in a multiorganism community that is sustainable,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, Sears foresees algae production as being a good investment. A2BE’s economic projections show that a ton of carbon will produce products worth more than $200 after being fixed by algae. “People talk about the price of carbon as if it something we have to have hauled away,” Sears said. “Carbon dioxide is not a waste product. It is something you can reprocess into something that has $200 worth of value.” He estimated the system would pay for itself within six to 10 years.

Sears spoke at the Renewable Energy Action Summit in Bismarck, N. D., last week. For more information on A2BE Carbon Capture, visit

No comments: