Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Botryococcus braunii AKA the Oil Machine
I'm currently interested in Botryococcus braunii. It's an algae that has 75-86% by weight hydrocarbons (long chain hdyrocarbons, ie the stuff you find in crude oil.). Yes, boys and girls, this algae produces petroleum. Its ancestors are also believed to have caused the oil deposits that we are currently depleting very rapidly now. The point is, everyone's talking about how the world will be doomed if we don't find an alternative energy source to petrol soon. Well, I believe that our doom can be avoided if we can harness the hydrocarbons produced from these algae on a large enough scale.

Of course, it's not all smooth sailing with Botryococcus braunii or we wouldn't be having the Hydrogen Powered Car nonsense, which is just that... Nonsense. It takes 30+ years to implement the hydrogen economy infrastructure, and furthermore, all hydrogen produced then would very likely come from fossil fuels. There are a few obstacles to clear, one of which is growth rate. Botryococcus braunii is slow growing for an algae species, its cell population doubles approximately every 2 days at optimum growth conditions (Dr. Jian Qing, Flinder University.). If we are to depend on this species of algae for fuel in the future, we'll need a doubling rate that's alot faster than that. It seems that we might have to look into genetic modification for this. They're also quite fragile. They prefer fresh water, although they can survive in brakish (slightly salty) water and prefer hot, warm climates where they can get plenty of sunlight (but not too much...less than 100 W/sq m/hr is ideal.). There's also the problem of oil/TAG/lipid extraction. Normally, when you extract crude oil, it's pretty straight forward. It's like sucking a carbonated drink from your typical fast food restaurant cup with a simple straw. That's because all the oil is trappped inside the ground with nothing else in them. Extracting lipids from Botryococcus braunii will not be that easy. Drying of the biomass followed by hexane extraction is what is proposed to work on a commercial scale. Supercritical lipid extraction of dried biomass has also been proposed. It may sound easy, but it's not. For both processes to be carried out at a large scale, you would need pretty expensive equipment.
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However, there are some good things going for it. Firstly, the hydrocarbons that it produces matches closely to the petroleum that we're digging out of the ground now, which means that it can go through the same purification processes that petroleum goes through before they are suitable for use in cars.

They can also be used in conjunction with bioremediation efforts since they're photosynthetic organisms and love carbon dioxide, which isn't so good for us. We can build production plants full of Botryococcus braunii beside a coal power plant and feed some of the smoke coming out of the chimmeys through to these algae and they should love it. Conversely, wastewater with high nutrient content (ie, High in N, P, Fe, K, COD, etc) could be field as growth media to these production plants to further boost the Botryococcus braunii growth rates as well.


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