Using Carbon to Fight Carbon

Carbon dioxide seems to be the evil nemesis in a world preoccupied with its contributions to climate change. The less CO2 you emit, it seems, the better citizen you are, and with good reason. But at algae-to-biofuel facilities across the nation, carbon dioxide is not only not the enemy, it's an essential partner to helping achieve a low-carbon future

CO2 — along with sunlight and water — is needed to grow algae, which can in turn produce oil, otherwise known as “oilgae” or “green crude.” While in its nascent stages, the “oilgae” industry is making strides toward commercial production, all while putting CO2 – designated a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency last year – to work as a needed, and yes, valuable, feedstock.

Using CO2 as a catalyst to grow algae is a more viable solution for what to do with the plentiful gas than, for example, sequestering and burying it underground, according to those in the industry. “Putting it underground will not create a market. Finding a way of turning [CO2] into something that can provide value will,” Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs at Sapphire Energy, said.

“The potential is huge because at least in theory, it’s such a win-win. You’re using carbon that would otherwise be put into the atmosphere, and creating products,” Clint Wilder, senior editor with CleanEdge, said. CleanEdge recently issued a report highlighting as a “trend to watch” the role CO2 can play as a feedstock for various industries, including algal biofuels and cement production.

Green crude producer Sapphire, backed by Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment and Venrock, a venture capital firm of the Rockefeller family, successfully produced 91-octane gasoline from algae that fully conforms to ASTM certification standards in 2008, and last year participated in a test flight using algae-based jet fuel in a Boeing 737-800 twin-engine aircraft, according to its website. Sapphire’s algae production occurs in an open-pond system vs. a closed bioreactor. “We went with the open-pond approach because we didn’t see much advantage of closed, which can be very expensive. We needed to be competitive with fossil sources of oil … which is around $75-80 a barrel,” Zenk said.

After the algae is grown, the oil is extracted and refined in a typical refinery set-up. Even though burning the oilgae releases CO2 back into the atmosphere, “on a lifecycle basis, if CO2 is consumed during the algae process, our fuels are extremely low-carbon,” Zenk said. Compared to diesel, the amount of carbon is reduced by 68 percent over the lifecycle. He estimates that between 12 and 15 kilograms of CO2 are consumed per gallon of oil produced.


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