Plankton to provide clean new oil

Aug 04, 2006 02:00 AM

A system for producing energy from marine algae, to replace fossil fuels and reduce pollution, has been developed by Spanish researchers and will be operational in late 2007, according to its backers.
Bernard Stroiazzo-Mougin, president of Biofuel Systems SL (BFS), the Spanish company developing the project, told that "the system will produce massive amounts of bio-petroleum from phytoplankton, in a limited space and at a very moderate cost."

On pointing out that biodiesel is already being produced in other countries, the executive explained that the photo-bioreactor to be produced by his company is not the same thing. BFS, with the support of the University of Alicante, "has designed a totally new system for producing bio-petroleum -- not biodiesel -- by means of an energy converter," he explained.
The new fuel will have all the advantages of petroleum, including the possibility of extracting the usual oil derivatives, "but without its disadvantages, because it will not contribute to CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, but will in fact reduce them. It will not emit SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and there will be hardly any toxic by-products."

The raw material for the new fuel is phytoplankton -- tiny oceanic plants -- that are photoautotrophic, depending only on light and CO2 for their food. Among them are diatoms, a group of unicellular algae, also found in fresh water on land masses, and on moist ground. Phytoplankton produces 98 % of the oxygen in the earth's atmosphere.
According to Stroiazzo-Mougin, BFS's system will produce 400 times more oil than any other source of biofuel. For example, he said, "a surface area of 52,000 sq km can yield 95 mm barrels of bio-petroleum per day, in other words an amount equivalent to the entire world production of crude oil at present, and at a considerably lower price."

The system, he added, will ensure a permanent, inexhaustible source of energy, which also uses up excess CO2, thus helping to curb the greenhouse effect and global warming, of which CO2 is one of the main causes.
In order to replace 40 % of the world's present consumption of petroleum with biodiesel from plant sources, the area of land currently under cultivation would have to be multiplied by three, which is "totally impossible and counterproductive for the global economy," Stroiazzo-Mougin said.

BFS's new fuel will be similar to the fossil petroleum that was formed "millions of years ago under immense pressure and temperature and in the context of great seismic and volcanic activity, starting from the same plant elements that we will be using now (mainly phytoplankton)," he explained. It was "biodegradation of certain plant organic compounds (fatty acids and hydrocarbons) that gave rise to petroleum, and our system will be similar to that process," the president of BFS added.
With respect to the surface areas needed to produce biofuels, he indicated that soya produces 50 cm per sq km per year, colza (rape seed) produces 100 to 140 cm, mustard yields 130 and palm oil 610 cm, while algae produce 10,000 to 20,000 cm of biofuel per sq km per year.

BFS is also planning to develop technology to increase production of algae per hectare, before completing construction of its first factory, to be located on Spain's Mediterranean coast. Production will occur in a closed circuit including vats on land, although there are plans to develop processors offshore.
Asked whether BFS will be offering the formula and processing system to other countries, whether they will forge alliances with other companies, or sell the patent, or whether it will all be free, Stroiazzo-Mougin replied that "all these aspects are being carefully studied, from the point of view of the commercial structure of the company."
"Because of the importance of the system, these are aspects that must be analysed in depth, and we do not have an answer as yet," he said.

Talking about the initiative, the coordinator of the non-governmental organisation Ecologists in Action, Luis Gonzalez Reyes, told that the situation "with regard to climate change is extremely problematic, and we need to buy time to move towards societies that consume much less energy, and where energy consumption is environmentally friendly."
With regard to the BFS project in particular, "I am not fully aware of the details," said the activist. "The CO2 emission rate for the whole system should be evaluated -- that is to say, the difference between the amount of CO2 fixed by the algae and the amount released later on during extraction, processing and fuel burning."

"The possible release of other toxic substances during burning must also be investigated," he said. In any case, the environmentalist said, "what's important, as well as lowering energy consumption, is that new options should be sought and investigated, as BFS and the University of Alicante seem to be doing."
Stroiazzo-Mougin emphasised that the process would markedly lower CO2 emissions and that no other toxic substances would be released, as explained by the chemists andmarine biologists who participated in the research project.

Source: Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS)
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