For decades, scientists have studied the possibility of converting various substances into forms of useable energy. These environmentally friendly alternatives are now becoming a more popular topic as we recently watched gas prices sky-rocket to over $4 per gallon, and we aren’t sure what to expect next.

The Renewable Energy Group claims that it currently has a scalable and commercial technology capable of refining and producing large volumes of high quality algae biodiesel. The process can refine the feedstock oil from a variety of algae strains and the final biodiesel product exceeds ASTM standards. The company has produced high quality algae biodiesel at the pilot scale level with results that will lead to commercial production. The crude algae oil is cleaned and refined using the company’s pretreatment technology. It is then converted to biodiesel using a system similar to that in current commercial-scale biodiesel production processes. Renewable Energy Group has been involved in biodiesel production since 1996 and currently utilizes a multiple feedstock approach.

Renewable Energy Group is looking to initiate additional partnerships for commercial-scale production of algae biodiesel at volumes comparable to biodiesel produced from conventional vegetable and animal feedstocks. The algae biodiesel production process is a major step forward for the alternative fuels industry.

With negative perceptions of biodiesel production, algae biodiesel could be even more important to the industry. Biodiesel has received increased scrutiny for taking feedstocks away from the food supply and diverting them to fuel production. These speculations are untrue as biodiesel is created from substances of waste and do not have a substantial negative effect on the food supply. “Biodiesel’s effect on the food supply is minimal and to claim otherwise is nothing short of intellectually dishonest,” responded National Biodiesel Board CEO, Joe Jobe, concerning the implication of negative outcomes due to production of biodiesel.

algae biodiesel production

Algae Biodiesel Production. Photo Courtesy of NREL

One concern of algae production is the risk of contamination. Utilizing an open pond method could be dangerous as a high level of carbon dioxide must be pumped into the water to speed the process. Using the open pond method, the water is circulated around a shallow “race track” trench arrangement using paddle wheels to expose as much algae as possible to sunlight. Nutrients and carbon dioxide are constantly fed into the system and algae containing water is regularly harvested for biodiesel production. However, there are only a few algae strains that can be grown successfully in open systems because of contamination by and competition from wild algae strains.

Using a covered pond method, the pond is enclosed with a greenhouse that offers greater productivity and safety. Contamination by wild algae is limited, allowing a wider range of algae species to be grown. The amount of carbon dioxide can be increased and monitored safely.

A third method of algae production is done through vertical enclosed systems. The algae are grown in a fully managed environment limited through connected vertical plastic sleeves with precise carbon dioxide and nutrient levels. Because there is little danger of contamination, very specialized algae, producing lipids tailored to producing particular types of fuels (e.g. suited to aircraft) can be grown successfully.

In order to lessen our dependence on petroleum based fuel we must broaden our horizons and examine alternative methods such as algae.




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