Monday, January 21, 2008

Algae to Biofuel: New Interest

An idea for a fuel source that sparked interest over 20 years ago is now getting a fresh look. Algae offers the potential to produce inexpensive transportation fuel and back in the late 70's and 80's twelve U.S. universities, funds by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, studied 3,000 strains of algae until research money dried up in the 90's. As reported by the Environment News Service, one of the chief researchers at the time, Keith Cooksey, is a central figure in a new quest to tap both the CO2 absorption capabilities and fuel potential of brown algae.

"It's a very strange feeling," said Cooksey, now 72. "You don't usually have people bending your ear on what you did 20 years ago. Science doesn't work that way, but in this case, it did."

The revived interest in microalgae stems from conflict in the Middle East and the resulting focus on alternative fuels, Cooksey said.

"Our lab was one of three or four in the world doing research that nobody was really interested in," Cooksey said. "Now, suddenly lots of people are interested in it."

The oil companies, who may have been instrumental in quashing the earlier research, are now expressing significant interest in algae as we enter the post peak oil era.

The algal properties for sequestering CO2 make it especially attractive as a solution for transportation fuel.

Algal biodiesel is one of the only avenues available for high-volume re-use of CO2 generated in power plants. It is a technology that marries the potential need for carbon disposal in the electric utility industry with the need for clean-burning alternatives to petroleum in the transportation sector.

Already, a San Diego firm, Green Star Products, is working on agreements to construct commercial algae facilities that can offset carbon emissions, such as those produced by boilers in biodiesel plants. The trend definitely looks promising.