Is lake slime a future fuel?

There's gold in some of that slimy green stuff floating in the water -- black gold. Algae boosters say the corn ethan
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

 

There's gold in some of that slimy green stuff floating in the water -- black gold.

Algae boosters say the corn ethanol program that provides most of America's non-petroleum fuel is yesterday's technology. The future is in oil from algae, which they say can provide the fuel America needs and is even carbon-neutral.

"It's a hot topic these days," said Richard Sayre, professor of plant cellular and molecular biology at The Ohio State University.

A government report in 1995, summarizing years of research, stated that oil could be produced from algae for $68 a barrel.

Oil was $30 a barrel in those days, so making oil from algae was dismissed as too expensive, Sayre said.

These days, with petroleum oil running around $125 a barrel, it seems like a more cost-effective option.

Although it gets less publicity than the costly corn ethanol program funded by Congress, algae has much better potential as a source of American fuel needs, Sayre said.

Corn ethanol and ethanol produced from sugar cane can be regarded as a first-generation method for making fuel from plants, Sayre said.

The second-generation method is to make fuel from cellulosics such as switchgrass, Sayre said.

"It still requires some technological breakthroughs to really make it cost competitive," Sayre said.

The third generation is algae, which Sayre says is superior as a source of fuel because:

-- It's not food and doesn't affect food prices

-- It is non-invasive and is spread all over the place as weeds

-- It can be optimized by controlling its environment

-- It can be harvested every day of the year.

And because it sucks up so much carbon dioxide as it grows, algae is carbon-neutral, Sayre said.

Using corn to produce all of the fuel needed by the U.S. would require an area eight times the size of the continental U.S., Sayre said.

But using algae to produce the same amount of fuel requires an area the size of New Jersey, Sayre said.

"That's a doable kind of thing," he said.

The ideal locations for raising algae have lots of water, moderate temperatures and lots of sunlight. Hawaii is ideal, California and Oregon also are good and perhaps Virginia, Sayre said.

"Then you have to factor in the cost of land. That starts to exclude some places," he said.

"The Midwest is not the most ideal place to grow algae, but it's certainly a feasible area," Sayre said. "Having plenty of water as Ohio has is a real advantage."

Algae is best for making diesel fuel and jet fuel, although it can also be made into a fuel very similar to gasoline, Sayre said.

Algae already is being explored as a possible fuel source by Jet Express and the Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line, who are working with the Put-in-Bay Port Authority to seek an Ohio Department of Development Grant to use algae biofuel that would be boosted by an additive of hydrogen.

The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority uses a biofuels-hydrogen mix in one of its minibuses.

This summer Ottawa County will be visited by Parivati Praveen, the president of SuGanit Systems Inc. of Reston, Va. Praveen is trying to figure out if algae native to Lake Erie can be used to make fuel.

The hydrogen for the Toledo bus system and the proposed boat ferry project would be supplied by H2 Engine Systems.

John Everton, the president of the company, said last week he's puzzled at SuGanit's interest in Lake Erie algae. Only a few of the 3,000 varieties of algae produce a large amount of oil, Everton said.

"I'm not sure the algae in the lake is the right material to make a lipid oil from," he said.

Praveen said Everton raises a fair point.

But he said he's interested in finding out if the algae can be converted into fuel even if it is low in oil.

"We are exploring that," he said. "I don't want to say much more."

News on whether a state grant has been secured should be available by the end of the year, said Monica Drake, executive director of the Put-in-Bay Port Authority.

Sayre isn't just researching algae's potential as a scientist at OSU. He helped found Phycal LLC, a company in the Cleveland suburb Shaker Heights. The company received a $250,000 grant in March from Ohio's Third Frontier program, which funds promising new technologies.

Phycal has developed a process in the laboratory for harvesting oil from algae without killing the tiny plants. The grant will help the company figure out a way to produce algal oil in commercial quantities.

Sayre also is taking a new job soon. In September he'll become the director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewal Fuels, working out of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo.

Work at the institute will include a large focus upon algae, Sayre said.