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July 21, 2008

Men Turn Algae into Gasoline

By Adelia Ladson

For most folks algae is something that you clean out of a fish-tank, but for David James of Opelika, Ala., it just may be a solution to the ever increasing gas prices.

James has been researching and experimenting with alternative energies for the past eight years at Eastwood Christian School, where he is founder, headmaster and math/science teacher.

"Our school needed energy," he said was the reason he got involved with alternative energies.

He uses biodiesel fuels to run the school's buses, other vehicles and machinery. He has been working with algae in this capacity for the past 15 months, according to his biography posted on the T-CO Alternative Fuels and Energy Systems website.

Tommy Greene, founder of T-CO Alternative Fuels and Energy Systems, has been championing the cause for alternative fuels for more than 25 years. He brought James into his video-conferencing center in Moultrie to give a seminar on the use of algae as an alternative fuel source.

During the seminar people "tuned-in" via Internet from all over the world including India, Brazil, and Germany. Local individuals in attendance were Tommy Hall, who teaches physics at the high school, and Thomas Voss.

He started out by telling the audience that he had tried many different alternative energy sources at his private school including a wind generator, which he said broke down easily, and solar panels, which were expensive. He said he has also tried making ethanol but found it to be expensive and got 30 percent less gas mileage.

"I don't burn it. I don't like it," he said.

He said when they first started making biodiesel, methanol (a key component) was cheap and no one else in the community was collecting used vegetable (the other main ingredient). He said he tried the algae, initially, because he was looking for a cheap feedstock to make the biodiesel but he found it to be very difficult to extract the oil. In addition, the algae oil is worth $60 a gallon to chemical companies, so it would be more profitable to sell it than make fuel from it.

He said it also takes three times longer to make the biodiesel from the algae, and he said that the University of Georgia had experienced the same problem. He said they told him that it was a "protein problem."

"It's just too costly to make this stuff now. ... Only a few people have done this algae oil. So it's unperfected," James said.

Now, however, he said, the prices of methanol have increased and that makes it more expensive to actually make the biodiesel.

"The answer is gasification. ... I believe the gasifier is the way of the future," he said.

Gasification is a process of converting biomass into carbon monoxide and hydrogen by exposing it to high temperatures with a certain amount of oxygen or steam. James said this was not a new discovery because he had friends who rode around with gasifiers on their trucks.

"All this technology came from Germany. It's old technology," he said.

He said his friend at Unified Fuels, Inc. was the engineer who had built the gasifier they were converting the algae in and the specific catalysts they were using in the system were patented.

"The only one like it in the world. ... It's a closed system. There are no emissions and there's no waste," he said.

James explained how they had taken the algae and used it to make biodiesel and to make "green gas" and "green diesel." He used a chart to show the progression of the algae from growing, harvesting, drying and then the process of either putting it in the gasifier or extracting the oil to make biodiesel. It takes about 13 pounds of algae, which James is growing in a greenhouse, to make a gallon of gas, which they can make for an estimated $1.50 to $1.90 a gallon, he said. He also said an acre of algae, in the low estimates, could yield five to six thousand gallons of fuel.

"I don't know why we haven't done this before," James said.

He said that he believed he and Unified Fuels Inc. were probably only the second or third parties to have made biodiesel from algae.

"We are the first people, though, to drive on algae gasoline," he said confidently.

He said they had done their first gasification runs in January of this year and were shocked that it worked so well. They put the "green gas" right into their engines and took the green diesel fuel and put it directly into their diesel engines.

"There's still work to be done. We have not mastered everything yet," he said.

He said he hopes that gasifiers will be ready available "in the times to come," especially, to cities and counties.

"We hope to mass produce thousands of gasification units," he said.

He said there was also a lot of research being done on different modifications of algae and how to increase the lipid content, which were the fatty acids in the algae used to make biodiesel.

"I think old pond algae is fine," James said.

He explained some of the different ways used to harvest algae and gave the plusses and minuses of each method.

"Getting the algae out of the water. There are different methods. Harvesting must be done cheaply," he said.

He also emphasized that the green gas and green diesel were the same as the petroleum fuel used now in that they were both toxic and harmful to the environment. He also cautioned the audience about going "overboard" in wanting to put everything green into the gasifier and defoliating the earth without replacing those resources.

"We can't over-harvest the earth," he said.

He also said that algae farming would probably be the "upcoming farming situation."

"Algae may be your future crop," he said.

However, he cautioned them, that they should not just run out and start up a farm until the process was perfected.

"We can do this on our soil. We can grow this here. We don't have to go to Saudi Arabia for $4-a-gallon gas," he said.

During the question and answer period, the online participants could e-mail questions for James to answer and the live audience could ask questions, as well.

Voss asked, "How do you get the algae that has the most lipids if you want to have a farm?"

James responded that the algae could be "stressed" to increase the lipids or there were people who were patenting algaes with high lipid content.

"You can patent an algae?" Voss asked laughing.

James said that it could be done and told him that they were also researching for themselves which algaes seem to produce better fuels and were easier to harvest. He said they were also still working on the gasifier unit, too, before they looked at production.

"We modify the machine and make a batch, we modify the machine and make a batch," he said.

Khaled Housayni of the United Arab Emirates e-mailed a few questions about the yield of the algae and the economic feasibility of the production.

"The profitability is tremendous. The amount of energy that goes out is greater than what you put in. The yield is high," James said.

He also said that the algae had more BTU's than the wood and leaves that were burned previously in gasifiers.

Greene said that he did not charge for the seminars because he believed the information needed to reach the public so the "problem could be solved."

"We like to rally around David and take David's knowledge and make it worldwide," said Greene.

He also said that his goal was to have at least one person out of every household be able to discuss alternative energy sources.

James will be at the Sunbelt Expo this October with the Grasshopper Mower company.