April 8, 2009 While there are plenty of alternative fuel prospects floating around, a key factor in the widespread adoption of such fuels is whether or not they are economical. That is why a team of New York based researchers are so excited by their development of what they have termed ‘the first economical, eco-friendly process to convert algae oil into biodiesel fuel’ – a discovery they predict could one day lead to U.S. independence from petroleum as a fuel.

One of the problems with current methods for producing biodiesel from algae oil is the processing cost. The researchers say their process is at least 40 percent cheaper than that of others now being used and, with a limitless amount of algae growing in oceans, lakes, and rivers, throughout the world, supply will not be a problem. Another benefit of the process is that there is no wastewater produced to cause pollution. "This is the first economical way to produce biodiesel from algae oil," according to lead researcher and vice president of United Environment and Energy LLC, Ben Wen, Ph.D., "It costs much less than conventional processes because you would need a much smaller factory, there are no water disposal costs, and the process is considerably faster."

A key advantage of this new process, he says, is that it uses a proprietary solid catalyst developed at his company instead of liquid catalysts used by other scientists today. First, the solid catalyst can be used over and over. Second, it allows the continuously flowing production of biodiesel, compared to the method using a liquid catalyst, which is slower because workers need to take at least half an hour after producing each batch to create more biodiesel. They need to purify the biodiesel by neutralizing the base catalyst by adding acid. With the new process no such action is needed to treat the solid catalyst, Wen explains.

It's estimated that algae has an "oil-per-acre production rate 100-300 times the amount of soybeans, and offers the highest yield feedstock for biodiesel and the most promising source for mass biodiesel production to replace transportation fuel in the United States." Wen says that his firm is now conducting a pilot program for the process with a production capacity of nearly 1 million gallons of algae biodiesel per year. Depending on the size of the machinery and the plant, it is possible that a company could produce up to 50 million gallons of algae biodiesel annually.

Wen also says that the solid catalyst continuous flow method can be adapted to mobile units so that smaller companies wouldn't have to construct plants and the military could use the process in the field. Also, unlike crop-based biofuels, the production of algae based biodiesel does not entail a decrease in food production, since it requires neither farmland nor fresh water.

Darren Quick