Algae to the Rescue

A microscopic picture of biofuel

A microscopic picture of biofuel

The necessities and benefits of renewable energy have become fairly accepted by society.  Not only does this clean energy reduce the emissions of GHG’s into the atmosphere, it also helps to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and provide future alternatives to our ever-depleting sources of fossil fuels.  With the established need for a change in our energy use, many technological advancements have been made in the way of making clean energy more competitive with fossil fuels.

On the subject of biofuels in particular, corn ethanol has become available at gas stations across the United States.  Although this may come across as a victory for the sustainable movement, there are underlying issues that need to be understood.

To start, corn ethanol actually requires more energy in the cultivation and distilling of the ethanol than the fuel actually produces. In addition, the fuel produced from corn is less efficient than that from oil.  The energy in a gallon of corn ethanol equates to only two thirds of that for a gallon of gasoline (Biello  61).  This appears to be counteractive to the main purpose of sustainable energy, sustainability.

There is also a large amount of land required to produce corn ethanol.  The co-founder of Synthetic Genomics, J. Craig Venter, put this land issue into perspective, calculating that land thee times the size of the continental U.S. would be needed to meet the United States’ fuel needs for transportation (Biello  61-62).

This brings up another concern.  Using corn for ethanol can, and has, created a competition between food and fuel.  Not only is there competition for the use of corn, but also the use of land for growing biofuels, causing corn prices to rise (Biello  60).

These issues are certainly not small and cannot be ignored.  Well then, where do we go now?  Environmentalists and researchers have been studying different species of algae as use for biofuels.  Oil can be collected from algae as use for biodiesel or jet fuel (Ferrell, Sarisky-Reed  v).  This may just be the answer to many of the issues in corn ethanol production.

The main attractive aspect of algal fuel is the high oil yield from algae plants, estimated between 1,000 to 6,500 gallons per acre per year, as stated in the National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap (Ferrell, Sarisky-Reed  3).  This means that much less land is required for algal fuel compared to that for corn ethanol.  In fact, Venter calculated that only land the size of the state of Maryland would be required for algae growth to replace oil for the use of transportation fuel in United States (Biello  64).

In addition, algae can be grown on non-arable land, which is otherwise useless.  It can also be grown in a multiplicity of water sources.  A water source of particular interest is wastewater.  While the nitrogen and phosphorous rich waste streams provide nutrients for the algae to grow, the algae also serve to break down organic material in the wastewater treatment system (Biello 33).  The growth of algae, therefore, doesn’t compete with land for food sources.

These positive attributes of algal biofuels bring hope to the otherwise frustrating growth of biofuels.  I cannot yet, unfortunately, set down my metaphorical pencil and throw my hands up in completion.  This is just the beginning.  This is the spark to many new hypotheses.  Can algal biofuels be produced at a rate to take over fossil fuel use?  Are there underlying environmental effects of growing algae in massive amounts?  Will algae be a cost effective alternative to fossil fuels?  This post is the first of many in my quest for answers.

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One response to “Algae to the Rescue

  1. Pingback: Microalgae: renewable biofuel source with no need for fresh water. Just give them our wastewater. | Taking Science to the People·

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