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Satish Lele

Algae: An Oil Crop of Future

With the phenomenal increase in the world population and industrial growth in the past few decades, some of the major problems confronting mankind are those of quantity and quality of food, feed, drinking water, disposal of sewage and industrial wastes and proper conservation of water and soil. Suitably controlled algal growth can provide help in tackling these problems. Algae have found applications in many areas including agriculture, aquaculture, environmental protection and management and as functional foods and pharmaceuticals.

Some species of Algae can be a new Source of Energy for Cement Manufacturers, Power Plants and BioEthanol Distilleries. Most of BioEthanol distilleries in India use Cane Sugar Molasses as raw Material. In the manufacture of BioEthanol, large amount of CO2 is released, which is in highly concentrated form. It can be more profitably converted into Algae, containing Vegetable Oil, Carbohydrates, BioMass and Proteins. This also fixes the CO2 which is otherwise released into atmosphere and this reduction in release of CO2 into atmosphere reduces Carbon Tax for the company. For a 50 Kilo Liters per day Ethanol Distillery:
ProcessRaw MaterialProductCO2 ProducedAlgae oil that
can be Produced
FermentationCane Molasses50 KL Ethanol15 KL CO215 KL
Bio Gas PlantSpent WashMethane15 KL CO215 KL
Power GeneratorsMethane 20 KL CO220 KL

Latest Developments: The subject is studied, in last few years, with fairly specific aspect of algae, their ability to produce natural oils, finding algae that produced a lot of oil, but also with algae that grow under severe conditions, extremes of temperature, pH and salinity. There are around 300 species, mostly green algae and diatoms. Nutrient deficiency was the major factor. The common thread among the studies showing increased oil production under stress seems to be the observed cessation of cell division. While the rate of production of all cell components is lower under nutrient starvation, oil production seems to remain higher, leading to an accumulation of oil in the cells. The increased oil content of the algae does not to lead to increased overall productivity of oil. In fact, overall rates of oil production are lower during periods of nutrient deficiency. Higher levels of oil in the cells are more than offset by lower rates of cell growth. The main aim is to isolate the enzyme Acetyl CoA Carboxylase (ACCase) from a diatom. This enzyme was found to catalyze a key metabolic step in the synthesis of oils in algae.
Companies in Europe have made tremendous advances in the science of algae and the engineering of production systems of micro algae. They have established a Germplasm on Algae with 91% Hydrocarbon using open Pond and Photo bioreactor systems. The record production is 45.6 tons of Algae Oil per Hectare per annum.

    Algae as Oil Bearing Plant:
  1. Micro-algae are single celled microscopic organisms which, like other plants, use photosynthesis to convert the sunís energy into chemical energy. Micro-algae can be grown in large bioreactors that provide the algae with all the needs to maximize growth and oil production.

  2. Micro-algae are much more efficient converters of solar energy than any known plant, because they grow in suspension where they have unlimited access to water and more efficient access to CO2 and dissolved nutrients.

  3. The total oil content in algae can be up to 70% of their dry weight.

  4. Micro-algae are capable of producing more than 30 times the amount of oil (per year per unit area of land) when compared to oil seed crops.

  5. Some algae can grow in saline water. It is worth exploring the possible economic production of oils from algae, using saline ground water in the growing ponds. Once the water becomes too salty for the algae to grow, it could be drained to evaporation ponds to recover the salts for use by the chemical industry.

  6. Micro-algae are the fastest growing photosynthesizing organisms. They can complete an entire growing cycle every few days.

  7. Upto 120 tons of oil/hectare/year can be produced from algae.

  8. Algae production can be increased by increasing the carbon dioxide concentration in the water.

  9. One of the problems with growing algae in any kind of pond is that only in the top 6 mm or so of the water does the algae receive enough solar radiation. So the ability of a pond to grow algae is limited by its surface area, not by its volume.

There are a number of benefits that serve as driving force for developing and deploying algae technology. Some of these benefits have already been mentioned. The first two key areas address national and international issues that continue to grow in importance, energy security and climate change. The other areas address aspects of algae technology that differentiate it from other technology options.
Energy security is the number one driving force behind Bio fuels Program. The transportation sector is at the heart of this security issue. Cheap oil prices during the 1980s and 1990s have driven foreign oil imports to all time highs. In 1996, imports reached an important milestone, imported oil consumption exceeded domestic oil consumption in most of the countries. There is a dismal picture of growing dependence on foreign oil. Consider these basic points:

  1. Petroleum demand is increasing, especially due to new demand from Asian markets.

  2. New demand for oil will come primarily from the Persian Gulf.

  3. As long as prices for petroleum remain low, we can expect imports to exceed 60% of total consumption in ten years from now.

  4. Domestic supplies will likewise remain low as long as prices for petroleum remain low.

While there may be uncertainty and even contention over when and if there is a national security issue, there is one more piece to the puzzle that influences our perspective on this issue. This is the fact that, quite simply, 98% of the transportation sector relies on petroleum (mostly in the form of gasoline and diesel fuel). The implication of this indisputable observation is that even minor hiccups in the supply of oil could have crippling effects on rich nations. This lends special significance to the Bio fuels Program as a means of diversifying the fuel base in transportation sector.
CO2 is recognized as the most important (at least in quantity) of the atmospheric pollutants that contribute to the "greenhouse effect," a term used to describe the trapping of heat in the Earth's atmosphere by gases capable of absorbing radiation. By the end of the last century, scientists were already speculating on the potential impacts of anthropogenic CO2. The watershed event that brought the question of global warming to the forefront in the scientific community was the publication of Revelle's data in 1957, which quantified the geologically unprecedented build-up of atmospheric CO2 that began with the advent of the industrial revolution.