May 13, 2006
Novel energy options
As petroleum inches unstoppably towards $100 a barrel and global warming is a widely shared experience, it is nice to know there are solutions for a future without either of these. Here is a round-up of some options for Indian researchers and experimenters to get started on. These developments are from overseas and are worth our attention.
The appeal of biodiesel is well known but there are concerns that when land use is changed to produce liquid fuel, food production may suffer and famines ensue. Tree based oils -as against those derived from field crops- do a little better on this score but they still need a lot of land and take years to establish.
That is why research began in the USA on algae that can yield biodiesel. Between 1978 and 1996, National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL], USA funded studies under its Aquatic Species Program [ASP]. The programme discovered algae that had as much as 50% oil. For those with a technical bent of mind here’s a quote from an NREL PDF file: “Microalgae, like higher plants, produce storage lipids in the form of triacyglycerols [TAGs]. While TAGs could be used to produce a wide variety of chemicals, work at SERI focused on the production of fatty and methyl esters [FAMEs], which can be used as a substitute for fossil derived fuel… Although a number of algal strains were investigated for growth and lipid production properties, the best candidates were found in two classes, the Chlorophyceae [green algae] and the Bacilliarophyceae [diatoms].”
The goal was to produce biodiesel on a large scale with least use of arable land. Michael Briggs of the University of New Hampshire, has published a study titled, “Wide scale biodiesel production from algae”. Oil bearing algae could be grown in utterly unusable land such as in deserts. Here shallow ponds filled with brackish or salt water can sustain algae growth by photosynthesis of solar energy. There are admittedly technological problems like rapid evaporation losses and salt build up.
Assuming these can be solved, it was estimated that only about 10 million acres were required to meet all of USA’s transportation fuel needs. And Sonora desert alone has over 70 million acres where nothing can grow.[This is not to suggest, that all biodiesel production be centralised in one place. Far from it.] In contrast, 450 m. acres are used for farming and 500 m. more for grazing animals in the USA.
If that sounds too good to be true, wait until what Dr Isaac Berzin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] has to say. Before we get to his big idea, let’s pause a moment to learn what interested NREL in algae in the first place. They were looking for a way for sequester CO2 emitted by industries - and they stumbled upon biodiesel as a by-product. Berzin has combined both to demonstrate a very commercially viable opportunity.
He has set up a demonstration at a power station in Boston. Unacceptably high CO2 laden emissions are led into tanks growing algae. CO2 is absorbed and accelerates algae growth. What bubbles out to the atmosphere is acceptable by the standards of Kyoto Protocol.