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Emerging Algae-Based Energy Technologies (Biofuels)

As reserves of fossil fuels diminish and become more costly to extract, the search is ongoing for replacement fuel sources for the future. Among the most promising biofuels are those derived from algae (see the figure below). The species of algae used are nontoxic, biodegradable, and among the world’s fastest growing organisms. About 50% of algal weight is oil, which can be readily converted into fuel such as biodiesel. Algae can yield 26,000 gallons of biofuel per hectare—much more energy per acre than other crops. Some strains of algae can flourish in brackish water that is not usable for growing other crops. Algae can produce biodiesel, biogasoline, ethanol, butanol, methane, and even jet fuel.

Three pictures are shown and labeled a, b, and c. Picture a shows a microscopic view of algal organisms. They are brown, multipart strands and net-like structures on a background of light violet. Picture b shows five large tubs full of a brown liquid containing these algal organisms. Picture c depicts a cylinder full of green liquid in the foreground and a poster in the background that has the title “From Field to Fleet.”

(a) Tiny algal organisms can be (b) grown in large quantities and eventually (c) turned into a useful fuel such as biodiesel. (credit a: modification of work by Micah Sittig; credit b: modification of work by Robert Kerton; credit c: modification of work by John F. Williams)

According to the US Department of Energy, only 39,000 square kilometers (about 0.4% of the land mass of the US or less than \(\frac{1}{7}\)of the area used to grow corn) can produce enough algal fuel to replace all the petroleum-based fuel used in the US. The cost of algal fuels is becoming more competitive—for instance, the US Air Force is producing jet fuel from algae at a total cost of under \$5 per gallon. 

The process used to produce algal fuel is as follows: grow the algae (which use sunlight as their energy source and CO2 as a raw material); harvest the algae; extract the fuel compounds (or precursor compounds); process as necessary (e.g., perform a transesterification reaction to make biodiesel); purify; and distribute (see the figure below).

A flowchart is shown that contains pictures and words. Reading from left to right, the terms “Grow,” “Harvest,” “Extract,” “Process and purify,” and “Jet fuel gasoline diesel” are shown with right-facing arrows in between each. Above each term, respectively, are diagrams of three containers, three cylinders lying side-by-side, a pyramid-like container with liquid inside, a factory, and a fuel pump. In the space above all of the diagrams and to the left of the images is a diagram of the sun.

Algae convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into oil that is harvested, extracted, purified, and transformed into a variety of renewable fuels.

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