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Algae an Emerging Biofuel – GreenFuel, Solix, Live Fuel, Algenol

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High oil prices and increased demand for energy across the globe has pushed research in the alternate fuel segment.  Biofuels are seen as an attractive, eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. However, the availability of appropriate raw material and an inexpensive processing technology is critical for widespread adoption of biofuels.

Ethanol, a major biofuel is predominantly produced using crops such as corn and soy. US, in its bid to be energy sufficient has announced massive ethanol subsidies and diverted tonnes of corn and soy for biofuel production. Utilization of food grains for energy development has received a lot of criticism from different quarters. Experts highlight that  the quantity of corn/soy burnt by automobiles in the US is sufficient to cover the import need for a significant number of food deficit countries.

Now it seems that the lowly pond scum (algae) may be the answer to the food vs. fuel debate. The science behind the use of algae for biofuel production is simple. Algae requires water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow. Once fully-grown these can be harvested and processed to produce biofuel. Their growth rates are tremendous and some strains of algae almost quadruple the quantity of biomass in a single day.  Experts believe that an acre of algae may provide nearly 500 gallons of biofuel/year as compared to 70 gallons/year from an acre of soy or corn.

A host of enterprises such as GreenFuel TechnologiesSolix Biofuels and Live fuels are currently researching efficient and economical methods for algae cultivation and harvesting. Solix Biofuels, based in Fort Collins was started in 2006. It is funded by private equity and has raised nearly $ 5 million. CEO Doug Henston said that Solix is further targeting $ 10 million in the first half of 2008. In addition, Solix is also aiming to develop a research proposal for Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for advanced algae-to-fuel conversion technology by November 2008.

Algae cultivation for fuel production is akin to killing two birds with one stone. The process of algae growth absorbs carbon dioxide from the environment and the processing of algae in turn leads to clean fuel.  Solix in fact is planning a research project near New Belgium Brewing Co. Inc. in Fort Collins that will use carbon dioxide from the brewery for algae cultivation. Hence, the entire production cycle leads to an overall reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and may lead to a significant reduction in global warming. John Sheehan, an energy analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also highlights that algae can grow well in brackish water .Thus algae can proliferate in areas having highly saline groundwater, which are unsuitable for other forms of agriculture. Algae holds enormous potential to provide an answer to the worlds growing energy needs by providing an abundant, carbon neutral fuel source.

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