NEW ORLEANS — Billions of years ago, algae and zooplankton covered the waters in great plumes. When these tiny life forms died, they sank to the ocean floor and eventually were covered by mud. Pressure from the water above eventually compressed it into what is called light-sweet crude today.
Now, researchers want to take raw algae and use it to end the U.S. addiction to oil.
One believer is Larry C. Triola, a futurist for the warfare systems concepts branch at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren division.
Carve out a 250-mile-by-100 mile-pond on the desert floor, pump up some water from salt water aquifers, start growing algae in it, and it could provide all the synthetic oil the United States needs and leave some extra to export, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association Power Expo here.
“It is the densest growing vegetation in the world. There is no problem getting enough algae if we want to do it,” he said.
To replace all the petroleum imported in the United States with corn-based ethanol, the nation would have to plant an area five times the size of Texas every year. Switchgrass, another highly touted bio-fuel, would require an area two times the size of Texas.
Algae, on the other hand, grows in about 20 days, Triola said.
Algae has already been used to create synthetic fuel. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded $100 million in contracts to two San Diego-based defense contractors General Atomics and Science Applications International Corp. to make algae-based alternatives to JP8 fuel.
One company, Algaeventures Systems of Maryville, Ohio, announced in March that it had managed to reduce the cost of removing, dewatering and harvesting algae by 99 percent.
Previously, it cost about $875 per ton. The new process reduces that to $1.92.
Triola said that would be a reduction of about $240 per barrel for the fuel to .51 cents per barrel.
“If they can scale that up, we may have an answer here,” he said.
The Department of Energy explored algae-based fuel from the late 1970s to the early 1990s but dropped the technology when it was determined that the processing price needed to drop to $50 per ton to be able to compete with fossil fuels.
“We believe that this breakthrough moves algae back into the spotlight as an economically viable, plentiful source of fuel in the future,” said Ross Youngs, chief executive officer of the Univenture, Algaeventure’s parent company, in a statement.
Instead of giant lakes in the desert, the company foresees thousands of smaller greenhouses located next to power plants where algae is grown, processed into fuel and fed into power plants, according to company information.
The military has often driven technology development, said a report by the Center for Naval Analysis, a non-profit research firm. It should take the lead in developing alternative fuels, it said.
“Powering America’s Defense: Energy and Risks to National Security” concluded that the dependence on foreign oil is a security risk to the United States. Triola called it a “clear and present danger.”
The report concluded that the Defense Department “should be engaged in long-term research and development programs to discover low-carbon alternatives to conventional petroleum for its mobility needs.”
“Research into algae-based fuels have shown particular promise,” it said.
Triola said there are other technologies out there — solar, wind, high energy fusion machines — that could help wean the nation off foreign oil. But he quoted Winston Churchill, who once said that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing. After they’ve tried everything else.
Unfortunately, there are always economic, social and political forces standing in the way of progress when it comes to replacing oil, he said.