Oak Island Company Experiments with Green Crude
By Frank Tursi, Assistant Director, NC Coastal Federation. www.nccoast.org
We all know about Big Oil. How about Microscopic Oil?
We’re talking here about pond scum. Yes, algae, that yucky green stuff that we see clogging roadside ditches. To Kim Jones, the tiny, single-celled plants are the future, the green crude that may, one day, power that Mercedes E350 that you’ve had your eye on.
Jones is a chemistry professor at Brunswick Community College and the founder and CEO of Alganomics, a small company in Oak Island that is culturing algae with the hopes of converting it into a fuel to run diesel and even jet engines.
“It is a wonderful biofuel,” she says. “Algae grow everywhere and we’re not using a food source to make the fuel.”
This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, algae have a long pedigree as a fuel source. The crude oil used today to create gasoline, jet fuel, plastics and other substances began as, yes, pond scum – albeit 500 million years ago. The Earth’s atmosphere then contained 18 times more carbon dioxide than it does today, which triggered a giant algal bloom. The algae grew for 100 million years and then died. After time, temperature and pressure worked their magic, algae became crude oil and the Saudis became billionaires.
“We’re just speeding up the process,” Jones explained.
Experts in such matters predict that the production of algae biofuel could reach 61 million gallons a year and a market value of $1.3 billion over the next decade. It’s not surprising then that a number of oil companies, including BP and ExxonMobil, are working to turn algae into fuel.
Jones is no Chevron. Her small operation adjacent to the Oak Island sewer plant consists of clear acrylic tubes, called “photobioreactors,” that continuously circulate as much as 10,000 gallons of water from the sewer plant in a closed loop. Jones injects the water with carbon dioxide and inoculates it with three native microscopic algae – She’s mum on which species. Every trade has its secrets, you understand.
The science is simple: Like all plants, algae are loaded with chloroplasts, which let them create energy using just carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. Algae use this energy to reproduce or they store it for leaner times. Some algae in particular store energy as lipids, or oils. These lipids, in turn, can be readily refined into basically any hydrocarbon you like, from biodiesel to jet fuel, and the whole process is carbon-neutral.
Jones’ system does double green duty by further cleaning the wastewater as the system creates fuel. It would work just as well at hog lagoons, Jones said.
“We would like to commercially expand so that we could culture a lot of biomass to really make a difference,” she said. “We would like to put the process in place so that we could work with hog farmers to utilize those nutrients.”
Algae are among the fastest-growing organisms on Earth. Some species in the Jones’ tubes can double their mass overnight. The fast growth rate and the relatively high oil content mean that an acre of algae can produce almost 4,000 gallons of oil. As a comparison, corn produces about 250 gallons and soybeans about 50 gallons.
There are a number of problems that will have to be worked out before Jones or even ExxonMobil can produce commercial quantities of oil. Water is the main one. The United States could produce enough of the algae-derived fuel to eliminate 48 percent of the fuel it currently imports for transportation, according to researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy. Doing so, though, would require 5.5 percent of the land area in the lower 48 states and consume about three times the water currently used to irrigate crops.
Jones is convinced that solutions will be found. Until then, she will continue culturing her algae. She also plans to expand into a center that features several renewable energy technologies. Oak Island recently agreed to allow her to use a portion of Bill Smith Park next to the sewer plant on Fish Factory Road.
“We hope to make a wonderful educational park to teach people about renewable energy,” Jones said.
©N.C. Coastal Federation, 2011 State of the Coast Report. Reprinted with permission.