Sunday, March 30, 2008

Algae How Much Oil?


How Much Oil

I recently got myself all excited about Valcent’s “Vertigro” algae system and other algae start-ups. I was doing a bit of research, regarding oil yield for different crops, when I came upon Keith Addison’s excellent site: JourneyToForever

I noticed that Keith did not have much by way of reference to algae and its oil yield on his site which was otherwise extensive in its information, so I wrote to him. Keith's rapid reply somewhat burst the bubble of my enthusiasm about algae, and brought in a firm and balancing realism to my thinking. I want to share this with you so here is our correspondence:

Hi Keith - I found your site on a Google search for oil crop yields.
It is great so see such an amount of information and interest packed
into your pages. I could find little on algae as a source of lipids.
One of the most exciting areas I have been exploring is in algae oil
production. The latest figures suggest yields as high as 100,000 gal
per acre per year for vertical closed systems. That is just amazing
given that this crop can be grown just about anywhere.

Cheers, Tony

Keith's reply:

Hello Tony

Thank you, but there is no such thing as oil from algae or biodiesel
from algae outside of a few lab experiments, nor is there likely to
be any time soon, and if there is it will be industrial-scale stuff,
not Appropriate Technology.
[Biofuel] Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction? - John Benemann
Sat, 16 Jun 2007

A thorough analysis:
An in-depth look at biofuels from algae
Scientist skeptical of algae-to-biofuels potential - interview

Best wishes
Keith Addison
Journey to Forever
KYOTO Pref., Japan

With my bubbble somewhat burst I replied:

Thanks for that Keith,

You have me thinking in a different plane now - I guess I was taking
too much of the news and hype on algae farming as gospel. Your input
has started me of with a bit of balance reading.


Keith's comforting words:

Hi Tony

Sorry to be such a wet blanket!

I think a lot of the problem is that people want a replacement for
petroleum use, and there isn't one. You might find this interesting:

"How much fuel can we grow? How much land will it take?"

Appropriate Technology biofuels are fine, small-scale, local projects
making biodiesel and ethanol for local use, mostly from wastes. But
the bigger they get the less appropriate they become. And there is
indeed a LOT of hype (not only about algae).

All best

I would not be rushing out to invest in Algal Oil just yet. I would like to see some real return figures first.


1 comment:

Daryl said...

Hi Tony,

I've been checking into the Vertigro product and algae biostock in general.

In 12/07, Valcent announced initial test results, based on 30 reactors running for 90 days continuously, without any optimization yet.

This configuration can harvest algae and extract oil at a rate of 1 gram/litre (dry weight), which extrapolates out to 276 US tons per acre per year, using their formulas. Then, assuming you can get 50% lipid content (i.e. believe the algae research numbers), that's equivalent to 33,000 gallons per acre per year.

The next step will be to increase the number of reactors to 100, add some optimization and measure again.

Vertigro uses fairly common centrifuge extraction techniques, so I'm guessing similar numbers could be used as estimates for now.

I'm sure they don't have COA yet.

So, the reality is that they're in alpha test and quite a while from getting real world data in order to calculate the kind of metrics you're asking for. By the way, I totally agree that these are key questions to be answered.

Switching to the expert opinions that were cited...

Both are well respected in their field, but walking around with some old school information.

Dr. Benemann argues that ponds are the way to go because they are much cheaper. He dismisses entire spectrums of possibilities, such whether closed loop systems could ever produce significantly higher yields than ponds, or if new micro algae organisms could possibly be discovered or optimized in less than 10 years.

One of the biggest problems with this view is that ponds cannot control the airborne algae and other contaminants, which in turn take over the feedstock growth cycle. Nor can ponds control the temp or pH very easily. As a result, ponds cannot match the production rates of closed loop reactors, they are more labor intensive, and, while it might not be a huge issue, require a lot more land.

Besides the above, what's missing in Dr Benemann's and's analyses is that the cost of many of the bioreactor's components have been commodized, innovations have occurred in temp control, micro filtration, etc., and more research in general has been completed.

Also consider that a high percentage of the byproducts can be easily made into high protein animal feed, processed into fertilizer, or fermented into ethanol or butanol. Yield helps here as well.

Lastly, algae can sequester up to 90% of it's dry weight in CO2. As we evolve into cap and trade, the ability to remove literally tons of greenhouse gases can be monitized.

Put this altogether and it means that the ROI of the bioreactor model has changed considerably in 2008.

The initial cost of the Verigro hardware is estimated at $1M USD for a 1-acre plant. Obviously land, greenhouses, plumbing, construction costs, etc. are incremental.

Given what it is known and what has changed, it's worth watching Vertigro closely, even if they don't respond to inquiries well...