How Algae Biodiesel Works: A Bioreactor System

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Growing Algae for Biodiesel Use

So, we've talked about the chemical process that takes algae and turns it into biodiesel fuel. The real question, and one which many companies all over the globe are trying to answer, is how can we produce enough to meet the demand for biodiesel?

The most natural method of growing algae for biodiesel production is through open-pond growing. Using open ponds, we can grow algae in hot, sunny areas of the world to get maximum production. While this is the least invasive of all the growing techniques, it has some drawbacks. Bad weather can stunt algae growth, as can contamination from strains of bacteria or other outside organisms. The water in which the algae grow also has to be kept at a certain temperature, which can be difficult to maintain.

How Algae Biodiesel Works: Bioreactor Process

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Vertical growth/closed loop production has been developed by biofuel companies to produce algae faster and more efficiently than open pond growth. With vertical growing, algae are placed in clear plastic bags, so they can be exposed to sunlight on two sides. The bags are stacked high and protected from the rain by a cover. The extra sun exposure increases the productivity rate of the algae, which in turn increases oil production. The algae are also protected from contamination.

Other companies working to produce algae for biodiesel are constructing closed-tank bioreactor plants to help increase oil rates even further. Instead of growing algae outside, indoor plants are built with large, round drums that grow algae under ideal conditions. The algae are manipulated into growing at maximum levels and can be harvested every day. This yields a very high output of algae, which in turn yields large amounts of oil for biodiesel. Closed bioreactor plants can also be strategically placed near energy plants to capture excess carbon dioxide that would otherwise pollute the air.

Researchers are testing another variation of the closed-container or closed-pond process -- fermentation. Algae are cultivated in closed containers and fed sugar to promote growth. This method eliminates all margin of error since it allows growers to control all environmental factors. The benefit of this process is that it allows the algae biodiesel to be produced anywhere in the world. But, researchers are trying to figure out where to get enough sugar without creating problems.

Let's learn more about the pros and cons of algae biodiesel.