Georgia's Energy Future

While politicians, investors and entrepreneurs in Georgia have been tripping over each other in a mad rush to climb aboard an already crowded corn-ethanol bandwagon, a small group of researchers are just now breaking ground on what may be the world’s most promising alternative to fossil fuels.

Micro-algae have, by far, the highest potential energy yield of any vegetable oil crop, and as an added bonus, it can also eat pollution – which produces more algae. The University of Georgia is assembling a research team to solve the riddles of this potentially self-sustaining, renewable and clean energy source.

“The idea, basically, is to use algae to produce biodiesel,” says Ryan Hunt, a UGA researcher who is helping to lead the effort as part of the school’s biorefinery project. “We’re in the process now of setting up a lab – putting in orders, allocating lab space. We’ve really just started taking our baby steps. But we’ll build on the research that has already taken place. The whole algae concept is very exciting.”

UGA has enlisted the services of Dr. Senthil Chinnasamy of India, whose research has focused on algae’s role in bioremediation (cleaning up pollutants from water) and carbon sequestration (removal and storage of carbon from the atmosphere).

But well before UGA decided to dive into pond scum, a municipal utility company in North Georgia, Dalton Utilities, had expressed interest in converting algae from its sewage treatment operation into biodiesel.

“It’s a long term goal, but we think the potential is there,” says Mark Marlowe, vice president of wastewater engineering for Dalton Utilities. “The technology is still being developed, and frankly, we haven’t found a lot of people in Georgia’s research institutions who are ready to do the serious work yet.”

That was before UGA made its intentions known. Marlowe says he hopes to link up with university researchers in a joint effort.

Algae very well could be the luckiest charm yet in the effort to wean the world off greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels, and until recently, it has generally escaped notice and attention in Georgia’s newfound biofuel craze.

Good Timing

A hopeful crowd of elected officials, business leaders and farmers broke ground recently in Camilla on the state’s first corn-to-ethanol factory, a $175 million facility scheduled to open in 2008 and designed to produce a million gallons a year.

Georgia already has a handful of other renewable-energy plants in operation or in the works -- biodiesel facilities in Rome, for example, and the recently announced Fram Renewable Fuels project in Appling County, where they plan to produce wood fuel pellets (used mainly in Europe to generate electricity while reducing fossil fuel emissions).

And scientists are working on an economically viable formula to convert the state’s abundant forestry resources – woody biomass – into fuel, because ethanol from pine trees can yield more energy than corn.

Biofuels have moved beyond science fiction and now are fashionable, and though Georgia has shown up fashionably late to the party, the timing seems to be right as government subsidies and private investment spark a national trend. Ethanol, for example, is being brandished like a talisman, the ticket to independence from foreign oil.

But is that the best we can do? A 2006 university study in Minnesota indicated that biodiesel produced from soybeans produces more usable energy and reduces greenhouse gases more than corn-based ethanol. Meanwhile, algae’s potential energy yield is 105 to 300 times greater than soybeans. And algae won’t take up as much land as other biofuel crops -- it won’t displace the food crops grown to feed mankind.

This is old news to the U.S. government, which funded the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis. Between 1978 and 1996, the NREL’s Aquatic Species Program (ASP) focused on the production of biodiesel from algae and using carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal-fired power plants to increase the rate of algae growth while reducing carbon emissions (public enemy No. 1 in global warming).

The government program disappeared, but it left behind about 300 species of algae now available to researchers interested in developing a new energy source, and there have been plenty of takers who have seriously studied algae’s potential. For example:

• Michael Briggs with the University of New Hampshire Biodiesel group estimates that only 15,000 square miles of pond space could produce enough algae to meet all of the country’s ground transportation needs (transportation accounts for two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption).

• A New Zealand company, Aquaflow Bionomi, claims it will begin producing the world’s first biodiesel made from sewage pond algae. The company expects to produce one million liters of biodiesel from algae this year, and says the new biodiesel could eventually supply 80 percent of New Zealand’s fuel demands.

• A Massachusetts firm, GreenFuel Technologies, developed a technology called ‘Emissions-to-Biofuels.’ GreenFuel used an algae bioreactor system connected to the smokestack of a 1,040-megawatt power plant in Arizona to recycle carbon dioxide emissions, reducing pollution and then converting the algae into renewable biofuels.

Essentially, the algae eat CO2 and produce more algae. When there is enough algae to be harvested, its starches are turned into ethanol, lipids into biodiesel, proteins into food for livestock or returned to the algae as nutrients.

The Arizona project, an international award winner, could be the first step in creating a self-sustaining renewable energy system for producing electricity, while reducing greenhouse gases and creating fuel for transportation.

Marlowe says Dalton Utilities has been using biodiesel for several years. His department uses B-20 (a mix of biodiesel and petro-diesel) in all of its vehicles.

While researching biodiesel, Marlowe says, “we looked at the work done by the Aquatic Species Program. We handle about 35 million gallons of wastewater a day. We have a lot of algae. And I’ve been thinking, maybe we can produce enough of it on a large scale to make biodiesel. We’d certainly like to be on the leading edge.