Clean, Green, POWER!

A review of the technologies from the frontiers of innovation that will change our world. For better or for worse depends on how we implement it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hydrogen Fuel From Genetically Modified Algae

This isn't related to biofuels, or maybe it is, since they use an organism's biological process to produce hydrogen. Whatever the case, hydrogen is considered the fuel source of choice for the future. Why not? It's a clean fuel -- emissions are only pure water vapour. So pure you can even drink it.

Now back to the topic on hand, it seems that the eggheads at the Univerisity of California in Berkeley have developed a strain of algae that can produce large quantities of hydrogen through photosynthesis.

Previously the amount of hydrogen produced was not much to brag about, but the scientists working on the project have genetically altered the algae to produce 100,000 times more hydrogen than what it's natural counterpart can produce.

An excerpt from the Wired News article:
Mutant Algae Is Hydrogen Factory

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have engineered a strain of pond scum that could, with further refinements, produce vast amounts of hydrogen through photosynthesis.

The work, led by plant physiologist Tasios Melis, is so far unpublished. But if it proves correct, it would mean a major breakthrough in using algae as an industrial factory, not only for hydrogen, but for a wide range of products, from biodiesel to cosmetics.

The new strain of algae, known as C. reinhardtii, has truncated chlorophyll antennae within the chloroplasts of the cells, which serves to increase the organism's energy efficiency. In addition, it makes the algae a lighter shade of green, which in turn allows more sunlight deeper into an algal culture and therefore allows more cells to photosynthesize.

The famous bio-entrepeneur J. Craig Venter has also expressed interest in this project.

Other news sources related to this post:
The Register, UK - Pond life: the future of energy
Autoblog.com - Bioengineered algae bringing hydrogen fuel-cells closer?

Recent Developments in Algae-based Biofuels

Why am I obsessed with algae you may ask? Well it's because it has the greatest potential to be turned into biofuels, be it biodiesel or ethanol.

At any rate, I've found two companies that are developing this technology as we speak. In fact, they've already came up with workable business proposals for turning algae into biofuels. the companies involved are GreenFuel Technologies and GreenShift Corporation which is now owned by Veridium Corporation.

Here are excerpts from the latests press releases and news articles on these amazing algae to biofuels technology:

It Comes From Space to Solve our Energy Problems

GreenFuel Technologies Corporation, a start-up company in Cambridge Massachusetts, wants to use little green algae to cleanse the smoke from polluting smokestacks, converting it back into bio-fuels such as diesel or ethanol.


Originally inspired by NASA studies into regenerative life-support, the technology incorporates specially shaped tubes of water and site-specific algae at the end of large-scale sources of Carbon Dioxide such as coal-burning plants, reducing CO2 emissions by up to 40% and NOx by up to 86%, according to the company.

“This is a really big
idea.” said GreenFuel founder and MIT Aeronautics Professor Isaac Berzin during a recent interview with Scientific American.

While the idea of using algae to clean smoke is not new, GreenFuel has made two breakthroughs that it believes will make the concept viable. First, it developed techniques to tailor algal species to specific sites, increasing efficiency and reducing problems such as die-off that have plagued other attempts. “There are a lot of variables which go into selecting a given strain of algae, from basic environmental factors such as climate and light levels, to power-plant factors like the nature of output gases, to post-processing requirements.” explained Marty Goldenblatt, VP of Sales, in a recent interview with PhysOrg. “We use rapid adaptation devices which allows us to find what set of algae is best for different conditions.”


Now, this idea isn't really new. If I recall correctly, scientists have been toying around with this concept since the '60s. I'm glad that it's finally becoming a reality. But sadly, it may take a while and a whole lot of effort to convince the big oil lobbies to accept this idea.

No matter, with the price of fossil fuels increasing rapidly, a lot of people out there are searching for alternative sources of energy.

Earlier I mentioned two companies are currently involved in the development of biofuels from algae. Whereas GreenFuel Tech is focusing on marketing their technology to heavy industries and energy companies, GreenShift is focusing their efforts on the agricultural sector. Here is an excerpt from their press release dated February the 23rd:


Veridium Technology Converts Exhaust Carbon Dioxide from Fermentation Stage of Ethanol Facilities into New Ethanol and Biodiesel

MOUNT ARLINGTON, N.J.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Feb. 23, 2006--Veridium Corporation (OTC Bulletin Board: VRDM - News) today announced its new patent-pending technology for the conversion of exhaust carbon dioxide from the fermentation stage of ethanol production facilities back into new ethanol and biodiesel.

Earlier this year, Veridium announced its patented bioreactor process for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuelled combustion processes. The new technology is simple, robust and scalable, and was designed to stimulate additional revenues for power plant operators while decreasing plant emissions. Veridium's bioreactor is based on a new strain iron-loving blue-green algae discovered thriving in a hot stream at Yellowstone National Park. The algae use the available carbon dioxide and water to grow new algae, giving off pure oxygen and water vapor in the process. Once the algae grow to maturity, they fall to the bottom of the bioreactor where the algae can be harvested for other uses several times per day. One such use is conversion into clean fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is made from starch-based feedstocks and biodiesel is made from animal fats and vegetable oils. Corn, the primary feedstock for ethanol production today, contains about 66% starch and 3-4% oil.

Veridium's new BioStarch Recirculation System(TM) routes exhaust carbon dioxide from the fermentation stage of the ethanol production process through Veridium's bioreactor where it is consumed by algae that are comprised of about 94% starch and about 6% oil.

"The algae convert exhaust carbon dioxide and sunlight into biomass," said David Winsness, chief executive officer of Veridium's industrial design division. "This biomass is a very efficient feedstock for ethanol production and is itself a concentrated source of the primary ingredient of ethanol. It doubles in mass several times per day - a rate much faster than plants, and it does all of this on a footprint that is orders of magnitude less than the surface area required for crops. That said, this technology is by no means a replacement for crops. Traditional ethanol feedstocks are still required to generate the quantities of carbon dioxide needed to make our bioreactor effective."
More information on the Veridium's biofuel initiatives can be found here:
Veridium Technology Sequesters Exhaust Carbon Dioxide
Veridium and Mean Green BioFuels Turn Livestock and Poultry Waste into Biodiesel

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pond Scum and The Future

As I mentioned in my previous post, my foray into the world of blogging began with the posting of an article concerning algae based biofuels in a citizens' blog in my local newspaper The Star, here. I will now post that article again here in this blog.

Pond Scum and the Future

When we think of algae, the first thing that comes to mind is pond scum – that slimy green stuff that clogs up drains and leaves a slimy green slush on the surface of an otherwise clear and tranquil looking pond. The next thing that comes to mind is methods of removing it. After all, who would want to cultivate ponds of that stinky green mush?

But how many of us realize that these simple, resilient, single-cell plants are so important to life on Earth in so many ways? In many eco-systems, algae and diatoms form the foundation of the food chain. It provides food for lesser species, which are in turn eaten by progressively larger species of animals all the way up to the top of the food chain.

East Asian cultures have been relying on algae as a food source for ages now. Seaweed, a macroalgae, has been the ingredient of many food products, from sushi to jelly and even as the emulsifier in ice-cream. And for years now, health fanatics have extolled the virtues of nutritional supplements containing microalgal strains that will increase the body’s health, vitality and energy.

Air Supply

Aside from being the foundation of various eco-systems’ food chain, a lesser known fact is that these simple plants provide between 50-70% of the oxygen we all breathe and depend on. How is this possible, one might ask? We all know that forests are important features in the planet’s oxygen cycle, but algae?

The answer lies in the fact that more than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. Most marine algae may be almost invisible to the naked eye, but just because they are not as prominent as tropical rainforests or the evergreen forests of the northern latitudes, it does not mean they are any less important.Now, as we step into the dawn of a new millennia, our friends the algae may become more important to us than we realize. With fossil fuel reserves continuously depleting, the search is on for a viable source of renewable energy. It is in our best interest to push for clean and green sources of energy.

At the forefront of these renewable sources of energy are hydrogen fuel-cells and biodiesel technologies. Although hydrogen fuel is the touted as the energy source of choice, with water vapor as the only emission, currently the infrastructure for its widespread usage is not yet in place. That leaves biodiesel as the next viable alternative.

The Misunderstood Diesel

When we think of diesel engines, the image that often comes to mind is that of large trucks and busses spewing a dirty black cloud from its exhausts. But this is common misperception. Modern compression-ignition (diesel) engine are much cleaner than its polluting predecessors and is actually more efficient than the best spark-ignition (gasoline) engine. Some 40% more efficient. Coupled with the fact that biodiesel fuels are fully compatible with the modern diesel engine without the need for any modifications, clearly the best alternative fuel for the present would be biodiesel.

Critics to biodiesel often cite resource limitations as a dampening factor to the development of biodiesel alternatives. They say that the land needed to grow biofuel crops would compete with land needed for food crops. They say it will compete for water and nutrients. This is certainly true for most biodiesel crops. But this is where our friend the algae comes in.

It has been estimated that the per unit area yield of oil from microalgae culture systems is as high as 19,000 to 76,000 liters per acre, per year. That is between 7 to 31 times more productive, compared with the next best crop, palm oil at 2,400 liters per acre per year. Oil derived from algal sources processes into biodiesel as easily as any other terrestrial crop.

As for nutrient problems, this is clearly a non-issue as algal cultivation systems can be tied in to many other processes, such as waste streams from human or animal wastes to coal power plants, as a method of scrubbing the carbon dioxide emissions.

The only difficulty present with algal cultivation systems is finding the right strain with a high lipid content that grows fast and a cost-effective cultivation method that best suits the strain selected. A lot of research and development is currently underway to overcome this obstacle, but the future looks promising.

Into the Future

When the time comes and hydrogen fuel becomes the alternative energy source of choice, our friend the algae may still provide us with the answer. As early as 1939 scientists discovered a strain of algae that sometimes switches production from oxygen to hydrogen. They found that by depriving the algae of sulfur, normal photosynthesis within the plant would be disrupted and it would start producing hydrogen.

Clearly, algae are more important and useful than we give it credit. Not only do we owe much of our oxygen supply to it, these amazing plants may someday provide us with another reason for our dependence on them – as a source of fuel. So the next time you see a patch of green slime stuck to the wall of a drainage ditch, don’t simply dismiss it. We depend on them more than they depend on us.

References:

Hall, J. (2004) Ecology.com: The Most Important Organism in the World
http://www.ecology.com/dr-jacks-natural-world/most-important-organism/index.html

Wikipedia (2006) Wikipedia.com: Algae Culture
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_culture

Bengston, R. (2005) American Energy Independence: Biodiesel
http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/biodiesel.html

Shehan, J., Dunahay, T., Benemann, J., and Roessler, P. (1998) A Look Back at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Aquatic Culture Program – Biodiesel From Algae pp. 3-4, pp. 248-251. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/pdfs/biodiesel_from_algae.pdf
Alternate link: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24190.pdf

Briggs, M. (2004) UNH Biodiesel Group: Widescale Biodiesel Production From Algae
http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html


Link to my thread on this topic on the AboveTopSecret.com discussion forum:
Pond Scum and The Future

Monday, March 27, 2006

I begin my journey into the world of blogging

I'm a late comer in the blogging scene. When my friends around me were blogging away, I didn't join in bandwagon. I figured, what do I have to write about. All the other kids were writing about themselves, their day, what they ate... that sort of stuff which I find doesn't really matter. Who the hell cares what you ate anyway? I don't. And I don't think starting a blog to that end serves much of a purpose other than a distraction of sorts.

I started a blog anyway. That was two years ago, at Xanga. But that was all there was to it. I started the blog, changed the color scheme and title and just abandoned it. For two solid years it was abandoned, until several weeks ago.

You see, I'm a forum fellow. I do most of my writing on discussion forums. I was aware of blogs that focused on other issues besides the blogger's mundane daily routine. Yet I've never really had much reason to post what I do in forums on a blog instead.

But as you are probably aware now, I eventually relented. I posted an article on algae as a source of biofuel in the citizens' blog of my local newspaper. It was motivated purely out of economical reasons -- they were offering RM50 (USD12.50) for 'blog of the day'. I know it doesn't seem much, but where I come from that amount of money can last three or four days. I didn't win however. I'd like to believe it was less because of the content and more because of people's indifference to alternative energy sources. Or maybe because it was pretty long.

At the same time, I posted the same article on my Xanga site. I wanted to make it into a blog concerning clean alternative fuel sources. But I never had enough motivation to write in blogs. At least with discussion forums there is a visibly active exchange of ideas. So it was that the Xanga blog became abandoned once more.

Meanwhile I managed to get a part time job writing web content. I had to write 300-400 word articles concerning various types of furnitures and other home decor products. Not exactly something that interest me, but I get payed for it. The person giving me these writing assignments requested that I pepper my articles with the relevant keywords for each article. Curiousity got the better of me and I eventually learnt about keywords and Google's AdSense program.

That's what brought me here to Blogspot. I wanted to pursue my idea of writing about the death of fossil fuels and the rise of cleaner alternatives, but I wanted some motivation for it. Money is a good motivator, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I am motivated by it. The Xanga site didn't allow Google Ads, or at least I'm not aware of how to include it. It may seem a bit selfish, but hey, human behavior is economic behavior.

And so I begin my journey into the blogosphere.