American Energy Independence will be achieved when all cars, trucks and buses on U.S. highways are powered by transportation fuels produced in the USA.
Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae
By Michael Briggs, University of New Hampshire, Physics Department
As more evidence comes out daily of the ties between the leaders of petroleum producing countries and terrorists (not to mention the human rights abuses in their own countries), the incentive for finding an alternative to petroleum rises higher and higher. The environmental problems of petroleum have finally been surpassed by the strategic weakness of being dependent on a fuel that can only be purchased from tyrants. The economic strain on our country resulting from the $100-150 billion we spend every year buying oil from other nations [in 2003 dollars—when oil cost less than $30 per barrel], combined with the occasional need to use military might to protect and secure oil reserves our economy depends on just makes matters worse (and using military might for that purpose just adds to the anti-American sentiment that gives rise to terrorism). Clearly, developing alternatives to oil should be one of our nation’s highest priorities.
In the United States, oil is primarily used for transportation – roughly two-thirds of all oil use, in fact. So, developing an alternative means of powering our cars, trucks, and buses would go a long way towards weaning us, and the world, off of oil. While the so-called “hydrogen economy” receives a lot of attention in the media, there are several very serious problems with using hydrogen as an automotive fuel. For automobiles, the best alternative at present is clearly biodiesel, a fuel that can be used in existing diesel engines with no changes, and is made from vegetable oils or animal fats rather than petroleum.
In this paper, I will first examine the possibilities of producing biodiesel on the scale necessary to replace all petroleum transportation fuels in the U.S.
After you finish reading the above paper by Michael Briggs, read Water For Algae Farms. Then we will take a closer look at Michael Briggs’ numbers and combine his proposal with the concepts presented in Water For Algae Farms.
Because this web site is intended for an American audience, the examples that follow are presented in feet and acres, in place of the metric system values, meters and hectares, which Michael Briggs uses in his paper.
You do not need to be an engineer or mathematician to understand the following examples. If you can balance your checkbook, you have the skill to “Do the math,” and prove to yourself and others that American Energy Independence can be achieved with alternative fuels like biodiesel made from microalgae.
First, consider if you will, a treaty between the United States and Mexico, where Mexico grants the U.S. a permanent right-of-way to the Gulf of California for the purpose of building a seawater canal that will transport a large and continuous flow of seawater from the Gulf of California into the USA. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that a canal has already been built between the Gulf of California and the Salton Sea; and that the Salton Sea will serve as a transfer reservoir.
Now, visualize a large aqueduct between the Salton Sea and Death Valley where a second inland sea has formed, approximately the size of the Salton Sea. From these two inland seas, several aqueducts extend out into the deserts of the Southwestern United States; Reaching into Arizona and Nevada.
Of the many and various desert farms, ranches and communities served by the aqueducts, there will be forty-thousand algae farms, having a total water surface area of 250 acres each. Two-hundred and fifty acres multiplied by forty-thousand farms equals a total of ten million acres of shallow water algae ponds, dedicated for the purpose of growing non-food renewable biomass for the production of transportation fuels.
Each farm would have many ponds. Here is a picture of what a single pond might look like:
The pond would be shallow and the water would flow around the circle, making it easy to harvest the algae.
These are salt water algae ponds. Therefore, increasing levels of salinity caused by evaporation will be a problem. However, the problem can be solved by diluting the ponds with fresh water produced from desalinated seawater. Whenever new seawater, taken from the aqueduct, is added to the pond, desalinated seawater can be added too. Solar energy can power the desalination equipment. A new industry would develop to capitalize on the salt and minerals extracted from the process of desalination.
The readily available seawater solves the problem of evaporation, allowing full exploitation of the abundant sunlight. And desalination provides a source of local fresh water to dilute the salty pond water, keeping the salinity levels constant. Solar ponds can be built adjacent to the algae ponds to provide heat during cold desert nights.
1 hectare = 2.47 acres. Michael Briggs gave an estimate of $80,000 per hectare for the construction costs to build the algae ponds.
$80,000 divided by 2.47 = 32,390 rounded. We will say $32,500 per acre.
$32,500 times 250 acres = $8,125,000 construction costs for a 250 acre algae farm.
$8,125,000 times 40,000 farms = $325,000,000,000 to construct ten million acres of algae ponds.
That is Three Hundred and Twenty-Five BILLION dollars to construct the algae ponds. This does not include the cost of constructing the many distributed biorefineries that will be needed to process the algae and make the biodiesel (and to make the 10% methanol ingredient, etc.) Several adjacent algae farms could co-op a biorefinery, and/or the biorefinery could be the industrial center that defines an algae farming community.
Michael Briggs also provided an estimate of $12,000 per hectare for operating costs (including power consumption, labor, chemicals, and fixed capital costs).
$12,000 divided by 2.47 = 4,860 rounded. We will say $5,000 per acre for operating costs.
$5,000 times 250 acres = $1,250,000 annual operating costs for a 250 acre algae farm.
The University of New Hampshire Biodiesel Group also provided the following information on their Algae ponds:
“Micro algaes present the best option for producing biodiesel in quantities sufficient to completely replace petroleum. While traditional crops have yields of around 50-150 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year, algaes can yield 5,000-20,000 gallons per acre per year. Algaes grow best off of waste streams. Agricultural, animal, or human. Some other studies have looked into designing raceway algae ponds to be fed by agricultural or animal waste. We are now pursuing funding to investigate redesigning wastewater treatment plants to use raceway algae ponds as the primary treatment phase. With the dual goal of treating the waste and growing algae for biodiesel extraction. We also plan to investigate the possibility of using the algae mush (what is left after extracting the oil) as a fertilizer.”
5,000 to 20,000 gallons per acre per year. That is a wide range. Will seawater provide enough nutrients? Would micro algaes grown in waste streams be more productive than algaes grown in seawater?
In his paper, under the section titled: How much biodiesel, Michael Briggs concluded that 140,800,000,000 (140.8 billion) gallons of biodiesel could replace 100% of the petroleum transportation fuels consumed in the United States annually, without requiring a big change in driving behavior or automotive technology. Although he did assume everyone would switch to diesel engines because of the superior efficiency of diesel compared to gasoline engines, and he did point to the new diesel-hybrid cars and trucks that are now becoming available, and the promise of new diesel engine technology on the horizon. (And, of course Michael Briggs was not implying that existing gasoline engines would run on biodiesel. The purpose of the paper is to answer the question HOW MUCH BIODIESEL is needed to free the USA from oil dependence.)
140.8 billion gallons divided by ten million acres = 14,080 gallons per acre (per year).
If the algae ponds fail to yield enough micro algae oil to produce 14,080 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year, then ten million acres will not be enough to yield the target goal of 140.8 billion gallons per year.
Hey, we have plenty of fresh seawater, lots of sunshine and unlimited enthusiasm, so we will assume the algae ponds average 15,000 gallons per (pond surface area) acre, per year – if not, we will hire the best plant geneticists money can buy, and breed those little algae until they reach super algae status!
Based on Michael Briggs’ estimates, we were able to show that an algae farm with 250 acres of pond surface area would have $1,250,000 annual operating expenses.
15,000 gallons per acre times 250 acres = 3,750,000 gallons per algae farm per year.
$1,250,000 divided by 3,750,000 gallons = 33.3333 cents per gallon operating costs.
10,000 gallons per acre times 250 acres = 2,500,000 gallons per algae farm per year.
$1,250,000 divided by 2,500,000 gallons = 50 cents per gallon operating costs.
5,000 gallons per acre times 250 acres = 1,250,000 gallons per algae farm per year.
$1,250,000 divided by 1,250,000 gallons = 100 cents ($1) per gallon operating costs.
Did Michael Briggs’ estimates of operating costs include the cost of the initial capital investment? How much will it cost to pay off the $32,500 per acre loan for the initial construction costs (the $80,000 per hectare)?
That is: $32,500 times 250 acres = $8,125,000 construction costs for a 250 acre algae farm.
Let us assume a zero Interest federally insured loan spread over 20 years with a single payment of 1/20th of the principle due each year.
$8,125,000 divided by 20 years = $406,250 cost of debt per year per 250 acre algae farm.
$406,250 divided by 3,750,000 gallons = 10.8333 cents per gallon cost of debt (at 15,000 gallons per acre).
$406,250 divided by 2,500,000 gallons = 16.25 cents per gallon cost of debt (at 10,000 gallons per acre).
$406,250 divided by 1,250,000 gallons = 32.5 cents per gallon cost of debt (at 5,000 gallons per acre).
Worst case scenario at 5,000 gallons per acre = $1.33 per gallon total expense (operation costs + debt payments)
The worst case scenario total expense of $1.33 is for FEEDSTOCK only, and does not pay for the processing at the biorefinery to produce the final consumable gallon of biodiesel.
If the annual yield is only 5,000 gallons per acre, then the worse case scenario for feedstock is $1.325 times 42 = $55.65 per barrel of oil equivalent.
If the annual yield is 10,000 gallons per acre, then we would see a more rosy scenario for feedstock at .6625 cents times 42 = $27.83 per barrel of oil equivalent.
If the annual yield is 15,000 gallons per acre, then the cost of producing algae biodiesel feedstock would be .442 cents times 42 = $18.56 per barrel of oil equivalent. Very competitive with petroleum at low prices.
Don’t’ forget we have not added a profit yet.
If the farm earned 10 cents per gallon profit, then:
15,000 gallons times 250 acres times 10 cents = $375,000 per year net earnings.
10,000 gallons times 250 acres times 10 cents = $250,000 per year net earnings.
5,000 gallons times 250 acres times 10 cents = $125,000 per year net earnings.
The idea of a 250 acre farm has a very important purpose, indicated by the potential net earnings:
The U.S. congress can pass legislation to make this happen, with the condition that each of the 40,000 farms be given to qualified farmers. The qualifications would be pre-defined in the legislation. Corporations and foreign entities would not qualify. Only United States farmers could qualify—Willie Nelson farmers.
You can’t get any more American than that. And, it would not be socialism. It would be 21st century Americanism, while allowing our nation to pursue its own self-interest—Achievement of Energy Independence. Adam Smith would be proud.
• The 250 acre farm in the above example describes 250 acres of pond surface area. The actual land area required for each farm would be more than 250 acres, in order to include space for roads and processing facilities.
NOTICE: Experience with open pond algae production has shown significant problems. Although the final stage of algae oil production—converting the lipids into biodiesel—is a proven cost effective process, growing the microalgae lipids in open ponds is not so easy. Unfortunately, the high yield, high lipid-content algae strains are contaminated when grown in open ponds. The open ponds are invaded by local species, which are often low lipid-content algae strains that dominate the weaker high-lipid algae; causing lipid production to suffer. Research is focused on genetically altering the algae, attempting to develop a dominate high-lipid strain.
An enclosed system of bioreactors will solve the problem, but: Open ponds are desirable because they are less expensive than bioreactors, similar to the cost differences between conventional farming and hot-house farming. Where the hot house delivers advantages, but at a much higher cost. Open ponds make possible large inexpensive surface areas which allow shallow ponds where sunlight can easily reach the algae. A closed system requires expensive lighting, and expensive covering.
Support of Algae Biofuels as Viable Source of Green Energy Gains Momentum
In the world of biofuels, 2010 is officially the year of the autotrophic organism as dozens of companies and academic laboratories race to transform algae into a source of viable green energy, according to Algae Biofuels Production Technologies Worldwide by leading industrial market research firm SBI Energy. The endgame of these research efforts — which include genetic engineering and other biological techniques that create chemically induced mutations to improve how algae functions — is to domesticate algae, to make it a crop highly efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils that can be sent to a refinery and made into replacements for conventional gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and ethanol, as well as various other chemicals.
“Algae can be cultivated and harvested in support of a wide array of biofuel products. In addition, algae biofuels systems hold promise to enable rapid production of high quality, high throughput biofuels systems in support of carbon emissions reductions targets, and in support of clean fuel production,” says Robert Eckard, SBI Energy analyst and author of the report. “The U.S. Department of Energy’s recent $24 million commitment to a trio of research groups determined to bring algae biofuels to market indicates just how much potential this industry holds.”
At its current stage, the algae biofuels industry is primarily pursuing pilot and demonstration-scale algae cultivation projects and algae biofuels production facility projects. Due in part to the wide array of production technologies available, pilot projects are expected to continue through 2015 following the completion of demonstration-scale and commercial-scale projects that will result from varying stages of business activities between algae biofuels companies. Most announced development is currently within the U.S., although smaller peripheral markets in the European Union and Asia are expected to emerge due to collaborations with the U.S. algae biofuels industry or as a result of research programs beginning in 2010-2012. The U.S. is forecast to represent over 82% of the global market for open pond algae cultivation systems from 2010-2015, while the EU and Asian markets are respectively expected to claim 11% and 7%.
The major factors for algae biofuels technology market growth include trends in the prices and commodity markets for fossil fuels, regulatory support and incentives available to the algae biofuels industry for industry growth, growing investment in the algae biofuels industry, and contemporary industry activity focused on reducing the operational and capital costs associated with algae biofuels production. The high market growth projected for algae cultivation systems is based upon the growing volume of pilot, demonstration-scale, and emergent commercial-scale projects currently planned by companies within the algae biofuels industry. More than a dozen projects with over $25 million in algae cultivation system costs are projected through 2015.