September 2008
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Algae Allies Re-Join the Quest for Alternative Fuel Sources

  Click to enlarge
  David James examines a large tank containing algae at his Lee County laboratory.
Algae Allies Re-Join the Quest for Alternative Fuel Sources

By Alvin Benn

Pond scum may seem an unlikely source of fuel, but that ugly green slime found in swimming pools and catfish habitats suddenly finds itself on the popularity list.

Helping to lead the way in converting algae to a source of energy at a time when it’s needed the most is a Lee County educator who is proving it can be done.

If it works the way David James believes it can, Alabama farmers could well benefit from something they normally view as a green plant without much value.

   
Click to enlarge  
James sits on a riding lawmower propelled by biofuel produced at his lab in Lee County.  
   

So do a lot of other Americans—from giant corporations to small town entrepreneurs like James who divides his time between being headmaster of a school and working on ways to turn algae into an important source of fuel for America.

What he and the others are doing these days is working hard to find an alternate fuel at a time when the price of gasoline is going through the roof—straining the budgets of Americans from coast to coast.

Having to rely on foreign oil to operate cars, trucks, vans and airliners not only has upset so many motorists, it’s also provided a nationwide spark to do something about it. 

That’s where James and his algae allies come into play. What they’re doing is concentrating on ways to convert algae into a biodiesel energy source that would replace or supplement traditional methods.

   
  Click to enlarge
  James holds vials containing algae-produced biofuels developed at his laboratory in Lee County.

James and his partners in Unified Fuels Inc. aren’t exactly plowing new ground, but it comes at a time when the American public is desperate for a way to stem the steady increase in the price of standard gasoline and diesel.

The federal government worked on a similar algae program a quarter of a century ago, but put it on the back burner where it gathered dust. No doubt it had something to do with a barrel of foreign oil costing in the range of $30, not $130 and higher as it has been this year.

Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks has been a proponent of alternate fuels for a long time, especially since he entered office.

"I’ve been pushing for research into the use of algae as an alternate fuel because of what it can mean to our state and our nation," said Sparks. "With the climate we have in the South, our area is ideal for producing algae."

Tom Byrne, secretary of the Algae Biomass Organization, couldn’t agree more.

"Algae holds tremendous potential to be an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative to petroleum fuels," said Byrne. "We’ve still got some work to do on finding the best methods to produce fuel from algae, but it’s not longer a question of ‘if’ we can, rather, it’s ‘when’ we can."

Numerous scientific groups around the country are working on just "when" that might be. In Texas, for instance, that state’s Emerging Technology Fund recently awarded Texas A&M a $4 million grant for research into algae based biofuels to support domestic and military needs.

A scientific alliance known as Livefuels Inc. is working on a plan to sponsor dozens of labs and hundreds of scientists during the next 18 months.

The alliance will be led by Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy National Lab and a leader in processing engineering, bioscience and biotechnology.

If U.S. dependence on foreign oil is to end or be curtailed significantly, much will depend on how far and how fast science can move algae transformation studies into mass production, one that will fill gas pumps and cars around the nation.

What James is doing in his little Lee County lab is refining a process aimed at obtaining algae and, through a gasification transition, turning it into fuel. James, at times, has to explain in basic terms to groups just what he’s doing, but he’s quick to say the algae idea isn’t exactly rocket science or brain surgery.

"It’s really not all that hard to understand," he said, recently, during an interview with Cooperative Farming News at his rural research facility about 10 miles from Opelika. "We just squeeze the oil out of algae and turn it into gasoline."

Back in the spring, James conducted a seminar for officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other interested parties. To say they were impressed would be an understatement.

His seminar was one of several reasons his cell phone remains busy as he prepares to meet representatives from business, industry and the military who are interested in his algae project.

He said the Air Force seems particularly interested in what his group is doing. Needless to say, he’s happy to oblige with details. The thought of jet fighters using fuel emanating from algae is the stuff of which dreams are made.

The word James uses to outline the algae process is 19 letters long, but he likes to shorten it with a relatively succinct definition.

Transesterification, said James, is a method of collecting algae from water, drying it and then squeezing oil from it in a kinetic energy machine. Then, voila!, the oil eventually becomes gasoline that can be pumped into vehicles.

The bottom line, as it is in most scientific pursuits, is turning an idea into a workable endeavor and then capitalizing on it in a really big way for financial and humanitarian rewards.

James has no doubts it can be done if all the pieces fall into place. He’s also willing to put his money where his mouth is and his "laboratory" out in the boondocks bears witness to his dedication.

He’s not only producing biodiesel, he’s using it whenever and wherever he can, including a couple of Grasshopper lawn-mowers. One runs on standard gasoline, the other on diesel. At least one vehicle also uses the end result of algae transformation in Lee County.

According to James, who splits his time between his energy project and being headmaster of Eastwood Christian School, farmers around the country are on the verge of discovering their own gold mine in the form of a green plant.

The technology has been around for a long time, said James, but there was no real impetus to use it for energy purposes. That emphasis has been provided in recent years by Arab oil producers.

James, who has a patent which outlines in detail what he’s working on, said one algae cell can divide every seven hours—producing a huge amount of fuel when it’s "harvested."

"An acre of soybeans can produce 50 gallons of fuel," he said. "An acre of algae can produce 15,000 gallons of fuel."

Multiply that by potentially billions of gallons of fuel from algae cells and it’s easy to see an answer to foreign oil dependence could be just around the corner.

With the high price of aviation fuel contributing to debilitating changes within the industry, commercial airline companies have begun looking at algae as a possible way to recover from disastrous financial reports in recent quarters.

A coalition of airline companies, including Boeing, has been advocating stepped-up research for new energy sources, including algae-based biofuels.

Who knows, one day, when you board a flight to Boston or San Francisco, you just might be flying the friendly skies on algae-based fuel—an energy source emanating, in part, from Lee County.

 Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.