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Recap of SD-CAP Algal Biofuels Symposium 2010: Where we are - where we are going

This is still from the SD-CAP Symposium. Another talk I wanted to summarize was Professor Stephen Mayfield's talk titled "Where we are - where we are going"

The presentation slides can be found at the following location for anyone interested:

Professor Mayfield’s talk was more of an overview talk meant to introduce the audience to the topic of algal biofuels. It could be divided into 2 parts: the problem, and the solution.

The Problem

Professor Mayfield started by making the point that between 1900 and today energy has been a rapidly growing market reaching $5.8 trillion today from just $ 0.4 billion. The future energy market is predicted to double in value within just ten years. There is an interesting correlation between energy use and wealth of a nation. The United States according this chart is one of the wealthiest nations in the world while also using proportionally more resources. The future growth in the energy market and fear of some analysts is that other developing nations may want to emulate the behavior of the United States, adopting an energy intensive economic model and hoping that this would lead to wealth. Professor Mayfield then diverts to distinguish between energy, as stored energy, and power which is electricity and analyzes current and future sources of energy who were it would. He argues that in many regards, we have already passed by peak oil production. On the other hand, energy demands are increasing. To give some numbers, the total energy reserves today are estimated to be about 2300 TW-year. Assuming 2-3% growth in the consumption, we would be out of fuel by 2099. If the rest of the world were to consume fuel at the rate the US is, we could run out of fuel by 2048. All these numbers serve to reinforce his main point which is that we are approaching the end of hydrocarbon era. Since the need to continued energy consumption will continue, the question is:

How will we replace this lost energy source?

There are no silver bullets, but one significant answer is the development of biofuels which Professor Mayfield defined as the biochemical conversion of sunlight energy into chemical energy. This is significant if we consider the following numbers:

- The world consumes 15 Terawatts (TW) energy. 80% of this energy is derived from fossil fuels.
- The sun provides 86,000 TW of energy every year.

If we can just harvest a fraction of this energy, it would appear that our energy problems would be solved. Professor Mayfield pointed out that there are many approaches and emphasized that each approach would have its limiting reagent. Those would be:

- The current use of petroleum is obviously limited by finite quantities
- 1st generation ethanol are limited by the competition with food resources
- 2nd generation fiofuels are limited by the quantity of easily recoverable plant waste material
- Electric batteries are limited by the amount of lithium which are only located in a few geographic locations.
- A hydrogen economy relies on abundant electricity supplies which themselves must be derived from a different source.
- Lastly, there are algae which at the current time are too costly because large-scale plants do not exist.

Although large-scale algal biofuels plant do not exist, proof-of-concept drop-in fuels have been developed for use in cars as demonstrated by the Algaeus car - the first hybrid car running on a bland of algae-based renewable gasoline – and a Continental Boeing 737 flight.

Professor Mayfield then talked about a possible algal biofuels production chain similar to what I have written about in my previous post.

He expanded on this by evaluating factors that need to be addressed to bring algal biofuels to a cost-competitive basis. Areas of focus include: Bio-prospecting better production strains, using engineering to improve reactor design and all processing steps along the way, using biological and agricultural techniques to create better algal strains by breeding-selection, and by finding and marketing co-products.
On the point of breeding and selection, Professor Mayfield made the point that current crops and livestocks are a result of a 7000 year domestication process recently further aided by advances in the basic sciences. This is important to note because no commercial system uses wild type organisms. In the algal field, it is possible to generate transgenic algae strains within weeks. On a personal note, I want to point out that although this is fairly good compared to generation and handling of transgenic mammalian cell lines, current technologies still rely on transformation of plasmid material! Techniques for permanent and targeted integration are still missing for most eukaryotic algae.

On the topic of algal bio-products, there are already many products derived from algae. As of today, these have mostly focused on high-value products with relatively limited markets including biomass, omega-3 fatty acids, aquaculture feed and b-carotene. Future products will target lower value products with larger markets. The biofuels market can be viewed as the most challenging but also most rewarding market.

He concluded by saying that much research remains to be done, but when coupled with the right economic and political framework – for example considering carbon capture and domestic waste water streams – the future for algal biofuels looks bright.

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