Biofuels from Algae

In the previous post, I described work that I had done on making biofuels from lignin related materials, but I have also looked at algae, and here hydrothermal processing makes a lot of sense, if for no other reason than algae is always gathered wet. There are two distinct classes: microalgae and macroalga. The reason for distinguishing these has nothing to do with size, but rather with composition. Microalgae have the rather unusual property of being comprised of up to 25% nucleic acid, and the bulk of the rest is lipid or protein, and the mix is adjustable. The reason is microalgae are primarily devoted to reproduction, and if the supply of nitrogen and phosphate is surplus to requirements, they absorb what they can and reproduce, mainly making more nucleic acid and protein. Their energy storage medium is the lipid fraction, so given nutrient-rich conditions, they contain very little free lipids. Lipids are glycerol that is esterified by three fatty acids, in microalgae primarily palmitic (C16) and stearic (C18), with some other interesting acids like the omega-three acids. In principle, microalga would be very nutritious, but the high levels of nucleic acid give them some unfortunate side effects. Maybe genetic engineering could reduce this amount. Macroalgae, on the other hand, are largely carbohydrate in composition. Their structural polysaccharides are of industrial interest, although they also contain a lot of cellulose. The lipid nature of microalgae makes them very interesting when thinking of diesel fuel, where straight-chain hydrocarbons are optimal.

Microalgae have been heavily researched, and are usually grown in various tubes by those carrying out research on making biofuels. Occasionally they have been grown in ponds, which in my opinion is much more preferable, if for no other reason than it is cheaper. The ideal way to grow them seems to be to feed them plenty of nutrients, which leads them to reproduce but produce little in the way of hydrocarbons (but see below) then starve them. They cannot shut down their photosystems, so they continue to take on carbon dioxide and reduce the carbon all the way to lipids. The unimaginative thing to do then is to extract the microalgae and make “biodiesel”, a process that involves extracting the lipids, usually with a solvent such as a volatile hydrocarbon, distilling off the solvent, then reacting that with methanolic potassium hydroxide to make the methyl esters plus glycerol, and if you do this right, an aqueous phase separates out and you can recover your esters and blend them with diesel. The reason I say “unimaginative” is that when you get around to doing this, you find there are problems, and you get ferocious emulsions. These can be avoided by drying the algae, but now the eventual fuel is starting to get expensive, especially since the microalgae are very difficult to harvest in the first place. To move around in the water, they have to have a density that is essentially the same as water, so centrifuging is difficult, and since they are by nature somewhat slimy, they clog filters. There are ways of harvesting them, but that starts to get more expensive. The reason why hydrothermal processing makes so much sense is it is not necessary to dry them; the process works well if they are merely concentrated.

The venture I was involved in helping had the excellent idea of using microalgae that grow in sewage treatment plants, where besides producing the products from the algae, the pollution was also cleaned up, at least it is if the microalgae are not simply sent out into the environment. (We also can recover phosphate, which may be important in the future.). There are problems here, in that because it is so nutrient-rich the fraction of extractable lipids is close to zero. However, if hydrothermal liquefaction is used, the yield of hydrocarbons goes up to the vicinity of over 20%, of which about half are aromatic, and thus suitable for high-octane petrol. Presumably, the lipids were in the form of lipoprotein, or maybe only partially substituted glycerol, which would produce emulsifying agents. Also made are some nitrogen-rich chemicals that are about an order of magnitude more valuable than diesel. The hydrocarbons are C15 and C17 alpha unsaturated hydrocarbons, which could be used directly as a high-cetane diesel (if one hydrogenated the one double bond, you would have a linear saturated hydrocarbon with presumably a cetane rating of 100), and some aromatic hydrocarbons that would give an octane rating well over a hundred. The lipid fraction can be increased by growing them under nutrient-deprived conditions. They cannot reproduce, so they make lipids, and swell, until eventually they die. Once swollen, they are easier to handle as well. And if nothing else, there will be no shortage of sewage in the future.

Macroalgae will process a little like land plants. They are a lot easier to handle and harvest, but there is a problem in obtaining them in bulk: by and large, they only grow in a narrow band around the coast, and only on some rocks, and then only under good marine conditions. If the wave action is too strong, often there are few present. However, they can live in the open ocean. An example is the Sargasso Sea, and it appears that there are about twenty million tonne of them in the Atlantic where the Amazonian nutrients get out to sea. However, in the 1970s the US navy showed they could be grown on rafts in the open ocean with a little nutrient support. It may well also be that free-floating macroalgae can be grown, although of course the algae will move with the currents.

The reason for picking on algae is partly that some are the fastest-growing plants on the planet. They will take more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more quickly than any other plant, the sunlight absorbed by the plant is converted to chemical energy, not heat, and finally, the use of the oceans is not competing with any other use, and in fact may assist fish growth.

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