If you build it will the algae come?
Biodeisel plants in the United States have relied on soy oil as a feedstock. Recently the price of soy has almost doubled and, of course, the supply of soy is seasonal.
The fledgling U. S. biodiesel industry is struggling to cope with soaring soybean-oil prices, a glut of production capacity and a poorly developed distribution system.
One of Arkansas’ two biodiesel producers operates only seasonally, yet four new plants are scheduled to open during the first half of 2008, adding more than 63 million gallons of annual production capacity to the existing potential of 27 million gallons. Source
While there are other possible feedstocks the ideal source would be algae. The biodeisel plants may be in operation but where is the algae?
One of algae’s great virtues is that the plant has so little in common with other sources of fuel. Unlike cornfields that are harvested to produce ethanol, algae farms don’t require huge volumes of freshwater, nor do they tie up land that could be used for food crops. Algae flourish in saltwater or even wastewater and grow up to 40 times faster than other plants. Compared with current energy crops, algae have "the potential to deliver 10 or 100 times more energy per acre," says Ron C. Pate, a technical expert at Sandia National Labs. That’s why industrial giants ranging from Chevron (CVX) to Honeywell (HON) to Boeing (BA) are starting up algae business units. "In the past two years, we have changed from algae skeptics to proponents," says Dave Daggett, Boeing’s technology leader for energy and emissions. Source.
Shell oil has just found an algae partner in Hawaii so another major can be added to the list. Source.
Here is a classic example of the disconnect between biodeisel plant capacity and the lack of algae supply. There has been lots of talk and videos from potential algae suppliers but "where is the algae"?
In the U.S., demand for such plant-based oils is quickly outstripping supplies. That and algae’s mystique have attracted the attention of energy entrepreneurs such as Martin Tobias, CEO of Imperium Renewables in Seattle, which is armed with $145 million in venture capital and private equity funding. Imperium buys practically every drop of oil U.S. algae startups are producing. So far it has sold just a few hundred gallons of finished fuel. But Tobias has dedicated a 5 million-gallon refinery to algae oil, and by 2011 he expects startups to be making 100 million gallons a year. At that point, Tobias reckons, the price per gallon will fall to $1.70, from as much as $20 today. "The only thing missing is the farms," he says. "I prefer not to operate a large-scale farm myself, but I may have to do it." Source.
If the biodesel plants don’t receive supplies of algae soon they may go into receivership. Biodeisel plants in India have been built to process Jatropha but a least the Jatropha has been planted and it’s just a matter time until a crop is ready for harvest. ( see previous post on Jatropha)
The Pitt Meadows farmer believes in the old adage that you can tell a person by his friends. Algae production has good friends in Chevron, Honeywell, Shell and Boeing. One day soon we will be able to tell you that technical problems have been solved and that biodeisel from algae is on it’s way to a fuel tank near you.