Micro Algae Farming

Treated as a curiosity by the press, informed scientists and researchers world-wide are projecting micro algae will be the most common source of our transportation fuel within the coming decade.  Micro algae farms produce biomass which is then processed into biodiesel, biomethane or synthetic diesel.  Large scale micro algae farms will play a role in the Green Energy portfolio of southern Nevada.

Algae – “seaweeds” in Latin – were the first plant-like organisms to evolve on Earth.  They are photosynthetic, like land (terrestrial) plants.  Some algae species are so rich in lipids (vegetable oil), the amount we can extract is nearly 100 times greater than the amount of oil that can be collected from an equal amount of terrestrial biodiesel feed stock such as soybeans.  Algae does not require fertile farmlands so does not compete with the resources necessary to grow food and animal feed stocks.

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory released this formal research paper on the theoretical maximum oil yields for micro algae in various climates.  For the southwestern US states (Phoenix, AZ), they claim 38,000 gallons/acre/year is possible with a flat ground solution.  With vertical photobioreactors (PBR), firms are already producing 14,000 gallons/acre/year and are projecting over 200,000 gallons/acre/year in the future.  Even the practical operational estimate of 6,500 gallons/acre/year for the same region is impressive and inspiring considering bio oil from soybean crops generate only about 50 gallons/acre/year.

There are now 4 micro algae firms that are in production generating 14,000gallons/acre/year at about $2/gallon based on a petroleum refinery business model.  Calculating at only 10,000 gallons/acre/year and producing enough transportation fuel to provide 100% of the fuel used by the US in 2009 (converting to the higher energy density of biodiesel) results in less than 12 million acres of land.  Corn for ethanol is currently using 27 million acres of prime US farmland generating about 300 gallons/acre/year and biodiesel from soy was until recently, using over 20 million acres of farmland at 50 gallons/acre/year.

ETC Green is helping several land owners and businesses establish their stake in the transportation fuels industry of the future.  While the complete production process of micro algae to biofuel for ground vehicles is not profitable enough to be attractive today, micro algae production companies earn far more revenue selling bio-oil and biodiesel to the aeronautical and pharmaceutical industries.  There are various other target markets which are also profitable today for these algae farmers.  ETC Green is establishing business relations, market share and infrastructure in this emerging industry for the future.  We have followed the history of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Generation micro algae derived fuels (not be be confused with 1st and 2nd Generation biofuel feedstocks).  Now we are in discussions and negotiations for the 3.5 Generation micro algae technologies and the level of excitement is peaking as this may be the first economically viable version targeting ground vehicle fuels.

Please consider that well funded private research and development firms have no motivation to publish their findings or present at symposiums. It is only common sense that a crop which can double its biomass more than once per day will generate far more biofuel than any of the terrestrial crops (jatropha, yellowhorn, palm, corn, switch grass, soybeans, etc.).

“There is no other resource that comes even close in magnitude to the potential for making oil,” John Sheehan, Energy Analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Popular Mechanics, March 29, 2007

Why is this micro algae to biofuels technology emerging at this time? Please consider that up until the year 2005, a total of less than $150M USD (adjusted for inflation) was invested to explore the possibility of using micro algae for transportation fuels. Since the beginning of 2006, $10.4B has been invested primarily in and by the private sector and the resulting radical technology advancements are now being implemented into production scale solutions. Bill Gates, several top venture capital firms, Exxon/Mobile, Chevron, Shell Oil, GM, Boeing, Unilever and a long list of other firms have made significant investments in micro algae sourced bio-oils and bio-fuels over the past 3 years.

The following table shows growth potential in gallons oil/acre/yr

1 gal oil = 1 gal of biodiesel
Photobioreactor = PBR

Plant Latin Name Gallon Oil/Acre/Year
Micro Algae Algae Flat(Pond/PBR): 6,500 practical
38,000 max
Vertical(PBR): 14,000 in prod
200,000 max
Jatropha Jatropha curcas 468 (desert) 1,600 (best)
Yellowhorn Xanthoceras sorbifolium 850
Oil Palm Elaeis guineensis 610
Macauba Palm Acrocomia aculeata 461
Pequi Caryocar brasiliense 383
Buriti Palm Mauritia flexuosa 335
Oiticia Licania rigida 307
Coconut Cocos nucifera 276
Avocado Persea americana 270
Brazil Nut Bertholletia excelsa 245
Macadamia Nut Macadamia terniflora 230
Babassu Palm Orbignya martiana 188
Jojoba Simmondsia chinensis 186
Pecan Carya illinoensis 183
Bacuri Platonia insignis 146
Castor Bean Ricinus communis 145
Gopher Plant Euphorbia lathyris 137
Piassava Attalea funifera 136
Olive Tree Olea europaea 124
Rapeseed Brassica napus 122
Canola Brassica rapa 122
Opium Poppy Papaver somniferum 119
Peanut Ariachis hypogaea 109
Cocoa Theobroma cacao 105
Pennycress Thlaspi arvense 101
Sunflower Helianthus annuus 98
Moringa Moringa oleifera 94
Tung Oil Tree Aleurites fordii 93
Buffalo Gourd Cucurbita foetidissima 81
Safflower Carthamus tinctorius 80
Crambe Crambe abyssinica 72
Sesame Sesamum indicum 71
Camelina Camelina sativa 60
Mustard Brassica alba 59
Coriander Coriandrum sativum 55
Pumpkin Seed Cucurbita pepo 55
Euphorbia Euphorbia lagascae 54
Hazelnut Corylus avellana 49
Linseed Linum usitatissimum 49
Coffee Coffea arabica 47
Soybean Glycine max 46
Hemp Cannabis sativa 37
Cotton Gossypium hirsutum 33
Calendula Calendula officinalis 31
Kenaf Hibiscus cannabinus L. 28
Rubber Seed Hevea brasiliensis 26
Lupine Lupinus albus 24
Palm Erythea salvadorensis 23
Oat Avena sativa 22
Cashew Nut Anacardium occidentale 18
Corn Zea mays 18 oil/348 ethanol