By: James Hall
Edited by Colin Jones
That algae you've probably seen growing on river rocks, in abandoned swimming pools or at the edge of a pond might soon become fuel for your car.
Although research of algae-based petroleum began decades ago, recent environmental concerns have many interested in its potential once again.
The last push for algae research ended in the 1980s, when oil for fuel was slightly cheaper. For instance, oil prices in 1989 held an average inflation adjusted price of $32.03 compared to 2009's adjusted average of $53.92.
Now, the focus has shifted back to algae because of its natural ability to reduce carbon dioxide, with the goal of curbing greenhouse gases. The algae, when grown properly, produce a lipid that can be easily refined into a petroleum substance.
And much of the research being done in the area of algae biofuels is happening in the Southeast.
The main debate now is whether to grow the algae in closed systems or in open ponds. Kim Jones, CEO and founder of Alganomics in South Point, N.C., said her company is doing a little of both.
Jones' company starts growing the algae in what is called a photobioreactor and then moves the algae to ponds to mature.
The reactor, at the Oak Island Biological Treatment and Water Reuse Facility, a water treatment plant, uses phosphorous, nitrogen and other nutrients from wastewater to grow the algae.
After growing in the ponds the algae is then harvested for its oils, or lipids, which can be used as a fuel stock for biodiesel, biogasoline or even bio-jet fuel, said Egle Thomas, director of business development for the Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Raleigh, a state funded nonprofit corporation.
But Jones said the high cost of growing, filtering and extracting algae is the main obstacle to full-scale production. She said her company is focusing on cheaper ways to do those things.
The cost, for instance, is around $33 per gallon to create the fuel according to algae biofuel company Solix.
The constant water supply required to grow the algae also is a problem.
"We are dealing with tremendous volumes of water in order to grow a significant biomass of algae," she said. "At the Oak Island facility, we don't have to worry about a water source. They're looking to get rid of their water and we are no doubt eager to accept it."
A recent Associated Press article says many major airliners could be flying on biofuels in the next 10 years. Last January, a Continental Boeing 737-800 flew for 90 minutes on a blend of algae fuel and standard jet fuel.
But it's likely to be longer before you're driving on a tank of gas made from algae derived oil. Egle Thomas said it would take long-term capital investment to make the fuel for automobiles commercially viable.
But Jones sees progress.
"With every new innovation, we are reducing costs," she said.