What Should We Expect From Biofuel Production In the Short-Term?

BiofuelSara Volz, a high-school senior from Colorado, won first place in the annual “Intel Science Talent Search” for using a technique to significantly increase oil yields from algae, which is an important step to produce biofuels in an economically viable way. Zintro experts discuss what type of advances they expect in the algae fuel production in the near future.

Chemical engineer, Greg Benz believes that if we recognize the variety of valuable products, which can be made from algae and cellulose, it may change the entire landscape of the biofuel industry. “Although the oils from algae can be used as a feedstock for biodiesel, they can also be used as a source of cosmetic or food grade oils, which are worth 10-15 times as much as biofuel. They can also be processed into perfumes, plastics and a plethora of biochemicals that are worth even more,” he explains. “Similarly, cellulosic biomass can be burned directly as fuel, but can also be processed into synthesis gas by pyrolysis or into sugars by the enzymatic route. Even though synthesis gas can be used to make fuel, it can also be used to make many petrochemicals and plastics.” Moreover, Benz argues that several companies are abandoning the idea of biofuel production in favor of more profitable ventures, which use the same basic technology developed for biofuels. “Likewise, although sugars can be fermented into ethanol or butanol, they can also be used directly as foods, or fermented into much more valuable products as amino acids, enzymes, monomers for plastics, antibiotics and many more,” he adds. “Will this slow the development of biofuels, or enhance it due to more profit from the technology development, allowing it to be used in the future for commodity items such as fuel on a large enough scale to make it worthwhile?”

As industrial designer, Tom Mallard indicates, during algae production, we need to take into consideration the substantial amount of electrical power used in centrifuges in order to facilitate the harvesting of micro-algae and we should keep the carbon-footprint as small as possible. “The process isn’t perfect and there’s a slurry-slime not processed that must be transferred to fields for disposal, which adds significant overhead in scheduling and labor as well as carbon-footprint and the truck fleet is very costly as well. It’s a better strategy to use algae bioreactors to purify the water, in addition to making biofuel,” notes Mallard. “By purifying the water, bioreactors can turn our wastewater into biodiesel, which is a huge resource, since the water gets recycled and the de-watered algae is light enough to carry to farms where it can be stored dry as a much better agricultural product and a good fertilizer. These qualities can’t be obtained without recycling the water, so, to me, the advances in the industry need to be focused on bioreactor design and harvesting from a new orientation to recycle the water, in order to have the lowest possible carbon-footprint and price.”

By Idil Kan

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