Microbubbles Enable More Efficient Production Of Algae Biofuels

by , 01/26/12

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Algae biofuel is one of the most promising alternative fuels on the market – so far we’ve seen cars and even planes adapted to run on it. The main drawback thus far has been high production costs and energy usage – until now. Using a new “cost-effective harvesting method” featuring microbubbles, a team from the University of Sheffield believe they have found a way to make algae a more commercially viable fuel source.

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The main problem with creating algae biofuel is removing the water from the algae so that it can be processed effectively. This usually requires a large investment of time and energy, but the UK-based team believes that by producing microbubbles in an algae solution, the algae particles can be made to float to the surface of the water, making them easily extractable.

According to lead professor Will Zimmerman, the microbubble method uses 1,000 times less energy than previous methods and can be utilized at lower costs.  “We thought we had solved the major barrier to biofuel companies processing algae to use as fuel when we used microbubbles to grow the algae more densely,” Professor Zimmerman said. “It turned out, however, that algae biofuels still couldn’t be produced economically, because of the difficulty in harvesting and de-watering the algae. We had to develop a solution to this problem and once again, microbubbles provided a solution.”

A number of airlines, including Lufthansa, British Airways, United, and Virgin, are already investing in algae biofuels – and the market is expected to grow exponentially. In fact, earlier this week Etihad, national airline of the UAE, piloted the Gulf’s first biofuel-powered flight. Even the US Navy is experimenting with algae-based fuels and other biofuels.

More information of the team’s research can be found in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

+ University of Sheffield

Via Business Green

Lead Photo by U.S. Navy

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1 Comment

  1. Organic Mechanic January 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    We are on the precipice on an Algae Revolution!

    Algae can be made into a variety of biofuels, including biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, and biogas (as well as other materials). To add to your analysis, here are some pros and cons to algae as fuel:

    Algae grows in all directions
    Single celled, no superstructure required for algae (roots, trunks, leaves)
    Growth: 140 days for land crops; algae is year round, mature in 1-2 days
    Algae weathers extreme conditions, is resistant to drought, wind, rain
    Grow 30-100 x more oil per acre than corn or soybeans
    No sulfur, non toxic, biodegradable
    Can mix with existing fuels in existing vehicles
    Can also produce bioplastics, medicine, nutrition, feed, fertilizer, more
    Can absorb CO2 and other pollutants from power and cement plants, fossil fuel refining, fermentation based industries, ethanol production, etc


    Scale – difficulty replicating lab results into larger volume of production

    Growing – using open ponds are easily contaminated, PBR’s (photobioreactors) can be expensive

    Processing – challenges to harvesting & extracting oil

    Carbon Capture – is it really feasible? Can the algae keep up with the output, and what about during the night when algae is not active? Can the waste be reliably transferred into the algae? Are the right growing conditions and enough land there to cultivate the algae? (“to fully use the emissions from a 50 MWe natural gas fired power plant land would require 2200 acres of algae.”) Additional nutrients are required, such as N, P, or K, which must be added in precise amounts and typically come from chemicals like ammonia or nitrate and phosphorous. Taking into consideration all of the processing, is there a net capture of CO2? Also, capturing the emissions it is not true sequestration, as it will be burned again as fuel.

    Differing results from strains, environmental conditions, growing systems

    If chemicals are used to extract oil or process fuel, exhaust can be toxic

    Environmental Concerns – in scaled cultivation, especially of GM (genetically modified) algae – what if it seriously disrupts the ecosystem?

    To learn how to make algae biofuels, check out:
    Algae to Biodiesel: http://www.organicmechanic.com/algae-to-biodiesel/
    Algae to Ethanol: http://www.organicmechanic.com/algae-ethanol/

    For a look at the broad range of goods possible from algae and considerations for how to scale them up into entrepreneurial pursuits, check out Algae Business:

    Let me know if there are any questions about algae, or equipment to cultivate and use biofuels!

    – Chris

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