Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Algae oil: a "what-if" niche scenario

In a backchannel email, Robert Rapier asked if I would add one more situation to my list in which algae could become a biofuel niche -- at least 10% of our current fossil fuel usage. The new scenario calls for the genetic manipulation and breeding of a strain of algae that would do more than produce high oil yields. Aurora Biofuels has been working on the first part -- screening for microalgae strains that outperform others in terms of oil yields. And, the company has “further bred its select select portfolio to maximize fuel-production performance and to be cost effective at scale,” according to its web site. The company’s site also predicts it will start commercial production (they use the open pond method) in 2012, with an eventual capacity of at least 10 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

That’s all fine and good, but, that’s only half of what Rapier was hypothesizing. The second part of his scenario would be to continue the genetic manipulation and breeding to create a strain that naturally secretes the oil (lipids) the algae produces. The oil would then be skimmed off the top of the water where the algae is growing, according to Rapier, at “a tiny fraction of the cost and energy input” of the present method of gathering and pressing the algae for its oil.

Farfetched? Well, Rapier says to consider the production of insulin from designer bacteria. Special strains of E. coli bacteria have been developed to produce human insulin after being bred to carry the genetic material that directs the production of insulin in a human's pancreas. With arrarys of tests and just a bit of luck, perhaps some biogeneticist will develop a strain of algae that has the DNA that causes a cell to "sweat" lipids. And, since oil and water don't mix, it would be relatively easy to siphon off the oil alone.

I have not read about anybody doing research in this area, but would be interested to hear if any reader has some information.

No comments:

Post a Comment