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Algae Fuels Hopes for Life Without Big Oil!

Let’s cover off what you what you might already know…. Algae are a rather simple life-form that come in well over 65,000 different varieties (with possibly 100’s of thousands more to be identified still!), and they remain on the bleeding edge of Renewable Energy research, and represent a Holy Grail for many of the Disciples of BioFuels since they can also convert light and CO2 into oils and sugars like nothing else on Earth! The trouble with this ‘soon to bloom’ solution, is that most of the large PetroChemical Giants are also already well up to speed in their efforts to squeeze oil out of algae, and they are even starting to be awarded Patents on both processes, and even certain breeds (or mutations) of Algae in order to keep someone else from getting a competetive edge in this newly developing industry.
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Of course, this is a familiar story about how progress gets held back by powerful interests that seek to monopolize new ideas, and effectively kill growth prospects for everyone else…But in the case of algae, there might actually be enough biodiversity to go around for everyone, and we might all soon be singing the praises of this smelly, slimy deterant for swimmers, as we thumb our noses at the oil giants who are still trying to get the most from their well-heads.
That is of course, if there’s enough desire for cooperation between Bankers, Researchers, and the independent Industrialists who can move these ideas forward , rather than holding all their cards too close to their chest… Surely we don’t need another reason to wonder what companies like BP, Shell, and Exxon-Mobile have hidden in their sleeves, when it comes to assimilating good energy ideas, and then sitting on them until the oil runs dry!
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So to recap quickly, algae is a natural part of our ecology but like anything else, it can grow out of control with an over abundance of certain factors. For example, Ph imbalance (alkaline/acid), the elevated presence of Nitrates and CarbonDioxide(CO2), and of course lots of bright sunlight can take a few contaminating spores right up to a full algae bloom in no time. Yet through some sort divine providence, these annoying factors for swimming pool owners are perfectly suited to solve a few of Mankinds other, more pressing issues, such as meeting Energy needs while eliminating polluting by-products of Industry.
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Using algae as an alternative fuel is not a new idea though. The U.S. Department of Energy studied it for about 18 years, from 1978 to 1996. But according to Al Darzins of the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, in 1996 the Feds decided that algae oil could never compete economically with fossil fuels.
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Keep in mind that when Algae funding was dropped in 1996
Oil sold for 20$ a barrel!

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So, in the ‘Algae Arena’, the playing field has continued to keep changing all the time, and the goal posts have become alot easier to aim through with today’s oil prices, and renewed government interest. As it turns out, algae is also alot more complex than expected because of it’s enormous variety, and many different reproductive and metabolic needs. There are certain species of algae that are really good at living in hostile conditions, and others can breed incredibly fast, while others are really REALLY good at converting carbondioxide and light into sugars (carbohydrates) and even lipids (oils), where some of these species that can be composed of up to 50% oil at maturity.
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The trick is to find the right combination of these genetic traits, and put them to work on a large scale to both create energy, and consume waste products like Nitrates and CO2!
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This is where the more prescient PetroChem Giants hold the best cards, since they have already been actively trying genetically modify and breed algae for optimum yields for a few years now. Even the most staid organizations like Exxon have jumped aboard in the past year, after it plunked down $600 million for a partnership with Synthetic Genomics. It’s also worth noting that the beleaguered BP also anted-up with 10 million in Martek Biosciences, to explore their BioFuel options as well. Just to add context, in the past, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has ridiculed biofuels as “moonshine” so if both of these Oil Giants are now investing in algae fuel, you know that the tides have definitely turned…Green!

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It’s surprising that Algae hasn’t gained even more interest to date, since it has been a major player all along. The species Botryococcus braunii has been associated with oil and coal deposits dating back 100’s of millions of years, and because it creates oils that are more similar to todays raw crude, it’s being manipulated to produce product (botryococcene) that will be less like vegetable oil, adn more like today’s petroleum. The shortcoming of B. braunii, however, is its relatively slow growth rate. While algae that produce vegetable-type oils may have a doubling time of six to 12 hours, the doubling time of B. braunii is about four days. This is where genetic engineering comes in..
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The genomes for algae have been getting sequenced for awhile now, and results are already showign with strains that are less “green’ (genetically reduced chloroplasts) to allow more light energy to filter through to greater depths of a solution. Even our friend Botryococcus braunii is being modified to change it’s reproductive rate. Yet this raises greater ethical questions as to what effect these engineered species will have on the natural flora, if they were ever to make it out of the laboratory.
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Of course, when it comes to the PetroChem industry nothing is simple when it comes to serving the bottom line at all costs.  Royal Dutch Shell has already hard been at work through it’s joint venture called “Cellana” that allows it to manage the work of leading BioFuel developers such as HR Biopetroleum and their leased Natural Energy Laboratory facilities in Hawaii.
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All the while there’s abit of a Holy War developign in the Algae BioFuels world, where the independant entrepreneurs wish to promote open pond cultivation, that assures biodiversity, while the big players seek to lock up engineered species in closed systems. The fear is that independent BioFuel development could be squashed by the big players, through a variety of means that would make forced mergers and hostile takovers look like childsplay. Some of these perceived risks could be as nasty as engineered contaminating species, that could be used in emerging forms of Industrial Warfare.
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For now though it would seem that Shell Oil has put it’s leadership in Algae Biofuels on a back burner with an announcement yesterday that it will be pursuing it’s 12 Billion dollar joint venture with Cosan to develop and distribute ethanol and sugar globally. This seems to indicate that Shell is looking to harvest all the low-hanging fruit first, so long as Brazil can continue to displace forests for sugarcane fields. Reminds of an old Bruce Cockburn song
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The good news is that Algae is much more than a one trick pony, and there’s so much varied interest in these organisms, that it’s going to be just about impossible for a few giants to corner the market…
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If you’re curious about the possibilities of DIY BioDiesel production that you can operate , you might be surprised by how realistic it can be…Depsite the fact that most of the information is getting presented in a way that makes it sound like a cottage industry or hobby…CLICK HERE for MORE

COMING SOON:

Learn how Algae will survive by solve yet another huge environmental problem by working with, instead of against the PetroChem and Coal Giants!
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  1. Miguel
    16/08/2011 at 10:58 AM

    The expression “Holy Grial” is full of meaning. Something that does not exist but many people tried to find.:-)

    Being serious: This is a difficult game, If it was not possible to recover the energy invested when the oil price was low, the same will happens if the price is high. Lets consider that often the cost to obtain something is nothing else than the energy required for its production (including the energy required by the persons working in the production, to manufacture the equipments needed and to run the equipments). Otherwise, when so many petrochemical industries are investing in research in this field, probably they have done some risk calculations, taking into account the chances of sucess. Let’s hope they will find something useful.

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