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Biofuels: Greener than Ever

Tue, 06/01/2010 - 10:05am
James Netterwald, PhD

Plant-based and algae-based biofuels are becoming more profitable than ever, leading to more green backs for opportunists of the green age.

Biofuels cover imageOil has long been the preferred source of energy for human industrial activity and has thus driven the progress of mankind more than a century. However, the overuse of oil or fossil fuel has led to (and this is still a controversial topic) a number of environmental disasters such as the phenomenon of global warming. This is not news to anyone. And, not surprisingly, to decrease our dependence on the old “black gold,” there has been increasing interest and intensive research, development, and commercialization of so-called alternative energy sources (wind energy, hydrothermal energy, and nuclear energy) over the last half-century. This is not news, either. More recently—over the last decade or so—there has been intensive work into the development of biofuels, which are basically naturally occurring oils produced by a number of different organisms including plants and algae. Some companies are biofuel developers, while others provide technologies that enable this development. In this article, both types of companies will be represented.

Testing growth rates of algae cultures
Testing growth rates of algae cultures under red and blue LED lighting. (Source: OriginOil)
Fueling biofuel growth
One company that provides technologies for biofuel development is Eco-Solution. The company has actually developed an Optimized Natural Evolution (ONE) platform to improve some microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, and microalgae) without having to produce genetically modified organisms. The organisms are actually put under specific selective pressure that enhances desired characteristics akin to natural Darwinian evolution. Because of their rapid growth rates (with division times of one hour or less), bacteria naturally offer greater genetic variation than organisms like microalgae, which has a division time of 24 to 48 hours or more. In response to the different growth rates, Eco-Solution had to develop a high throughput platform to work with microalgae.

One company that provides technologies for biofuel development is . The company has actually developed an Optimized Natural Evolution (ONE) platform to improve some microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, and microalgae) without having to produce genetically modified organisms. The organisms are actually put under specific selective pressure that enhances desired characteristics akin to natural Darwinian evolution. Because of their rapid growth rates (with division times of one hour or less), bacteria naturally offer greater genetic variation than organisms like microalgae, which has a division time of 24 to 48 hours or more. In response to the different growth rates, Eco-Solution had to develop a high throughput platform to work with microalgae.

Dominique Duvauchelle, chief executive officer of Eco-Solution, explains the main differences between the two microorganisms as follows: “There may be millions of microorganisms in 20 milliliters of bacterial culture. And if you put a selective pressure on them, you will obtain mutants that are best fit to survive the stressing environment,” says Duvauchelle, who adds that to get the same amount of variation in a microalgae culture during a same period of time, Eco-Solution had to implement the ONE high throughput platform. “We are now submitting different microalgae to our unique ONE platform to improve their productivity in a way of reducing the production cost of algae-based biofuel. Our role in developing biofuels is to solve strain problems related to the productivity such as their growth rate, their resistance to inhibitors (e.g., temperature and pH), as well as to increase photosynthetic efficiency…to improve cost and efficiency of algae-based biofuel development.”

Sweet and Easy

Biofuel production in an organism is a part of its metabolism, which is dependent on its growth status. Therefore, there is a relationship between growth status and optimal biofuel production. It is necessary to analyze the organism’s capability to produce a biofuel at various time points during its growth cycle. Flow cytometry is one of the tools used to determine whether an organism has reached a level of growth conducive to optimal biofuel production. For example, Guava EasyCyte four color flow cytometers, instruments produced by Millipore are used for this purpose.

“Essentially, Guava EasyCyte flow cytometers are used to determine if the algae culture is ready to harvest for biofuel production,” says Jim Mulry, manager for clinical development and biofuels at Millipore Corporation, based in Hayward, California.  “The algal cells are counted in a patented counting system on-board the Guava cytometer. Forward and side-scatter measurements are then used to determine the size and integrity of the cells. A red fluorescent channel is used to identify chlorophyll A, which produces the lipids required for biofuel production. A green channel measures the mean quantity of lipids within the algal cells produced by chlorophyll A. Researchers then determine if the algae contains the maximum lipid content and is ripe for harvest,” says Mulry.

More on microalgae
Microalgae require CO2 for growth as it is the raw material for photosynthesis. So in order to grow microalgae commercially for the production of biofuels, there must be a way to deliver CO2 to the microalgae culture. A company known as OriginOil (Los Angeles, Calif.) provides technologies to help developers of microalgae-produced biofuels scale up production.

Microalgae require CO2 for growth as it is the raw material for photosynthesis. So in order to grow microalgae commercially for the production of biofuels, there must be a way to deliver CO2 to the microalgae culture. A company known as (Los Angeles, Calif.) provides technologies to help developers of microalgae-produced biofuels scale up production. 

“It’s easy to make a little bit of algae but difficult to make a lot profitably,” says Riggs Eckelberry, chief executive officer of OriginOil. “So we are devoted to addressing the technology barriers to scaling up algae-based biofuel production, so that it can eventually compete with oil.”

One of OriginOil’s technologies is a CO2 diffusion technology that allows developers to efficiently feed microalgae cultures. OriginOil was launched in 2007, largely on the success of its CO2 diffusion technology “that does a very good job of breaking up CO2 and the nutrients into very small particles, without a lot of energy needs, so that the algae can feed on it,” says Eckelberry. After growing the algae, there is a desire to harvest the oil from it to develop biofuels as well as to utilize the rest of the biomass for other commercial purposes.

“Around 10% of commercial algae cultures have the oil in them. The algae produce this oil not only for buoyancy but also as a food deserve. And this is basically high quality unsaturated vegetable oil which makes obviously a very good food but also as a source of plastics and fuel and so forth. So most people consider the algae oil to be the big value proposition but of course there is the green biomass, which also has a number of uses including being a source of methane gas.” 

“There are currently two methods for extracting oil from microalgae—a dry method and a wet method—both of which are very energy-dependent. As wet extraction pioneers, we can reduce that energy requirement by a factor of 10,” says Eckelbery, who adds that this method allows for extraction of algae from the water and extraction of the oil from the algae in one step. “The cavitation technology is very efficient at breaking things down without requiring a lot of energy. And in the extraction stage, we also do a low power electromagnetic pulsing, which essentially cracks the algae cell and then the oil separates itself over the course of an hour from the biomass.”

Biofuels from plants
Another biofuel-producing organism is Jatropa, which is a subtropical plant indigenous of Central America, where it produces the highest yields. Jatropa produces a fruit that contains seeds. The seeds contain concentrations of high quality vegetable oil between 30% and 40%. The oil is extracted either mechanically, or to produce higher yields, using a solvent extraction, and is then processed to produce a biofuel.

“What has really drawn us to the plant is that it grows on marginalized soil or underutilized lands that otherwise are not really ideal for food crop production. And based on this isolation, it does not displace food crops; it is also toxic when ingested, so it will not enter the food chain,” says Robert Schmidt, PhD, chief scientist at SGBiofuels, a Jatropa-based biofuel developer based in San Diego, Calif.

Jatropha community farming initiative
SG Biofuels has developed the largest Jatropha community farming initiative in Central America, with more than 1,500 acres already planted. (Source: SG Biofuels)
“We are interested in breeding plants that produce a significantly higher yield at lower input costs to make the crop truly profitable. Jatropa has the capacity to produce high quality crude oil..,” says Schmidt. The reason for this high quality oil is that the fatty acids are not saturated and, as a result, the oil stays in solution at low temperatures, which is very important especially when using the diesel fuel in Northern colder climates. “Jatropa has been used as jet fuel by the aviation industry. In tests with 50-50 blends of Jatropa oil and normal jet fuel, they measured the burn rates and found that the Jatropa fuel exceeded expectations in that it burned hotter than the jet fuel by itself. And they estimated that you can actually save 1.4 tons of fuel by using the Jatropa oil so that they can carry more personnel more cargo etc.,” says Schmidt.

Other major attributes of the plant that make it a very profitable organism for the development of biofuels include shorter maturation time than other feed crops used in biofuel production, allowing one to reach peak oil yields after four to five years, as well as a short seed production time.

“These attributes allow us to do breeding on this particular species and create new plants containing desirable traits such as high vigor, good oil production, and high disease resistance, all of which translate into greater profitability at lower costs of production.”

In summary, biofuel development is becoming more profitable and more efficient. As a result, there is an increasing number of biofuel companies looking to become players in the game.

This article was published in Bioscience Technology magazine: Vol. 34, No. 5, May, 2010, pp. 1, 12-13.

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