The Overal Impact of Algae Biofuels

This is the simplified process of converting algae to biodiesel.  The environmental impacts from each step are important in analyzing the overal benefits of algae.

This is the simplified process of converting algae to biodiesel. The environmental impacts from each step are important in analyzing the overal benefits of algae.

This post is a response to an article from ScienceDaily.com titled “Large-Scale Production of Biofuels Made from Algae Poses Sustainability Concerns.”  You can read the article here.

With the rising concern for an alternative fuel to support the United States’ fuel consumption, many researchers are looking to algae for a potential solution.  Algae have been found to contain large amounts of carbohydrates, which can be converted to fuel, and can achieve a rapid rate of growth.  In addition, algae can be grown in a wide variety of habitats.  Although these aspects seem to allow for algal biofuel production to avoid many environmental impacts, there is much to look into for identifying the potential impacts of large-scale commercialization of algal fuels.

The Water Issue

It comes as no surprise that water is required for algae growth, and lots of it.  “To produce the amount of algal biofuel equivalent to 1 liter of gasoline, between 3.15 liters to 3,650 liters of freshwater is required.”  This could potentially be an extreme issue if the water utilized is fresh water.

This addresses the issue of compromising one environmental movement or issue in order to solve another.  There are already concerns about utilizing our fresh water supply at an unsustainable rate.  Algal fuels must prove to be a sustainable alternative to petroleum, and therefore cannot use up another resource in doing so.

The Resource Issue

In order for algae to grow at an accelerated rate for biofuel production, a large amount of nutrients are needed.  These nutrients are primarily nitrogen, phosphorous, and or CO2.  There are a number of studies that show that wastewater water could be recycled and used for algae cultivation, utilizing recycled nutrients to promote algae growth.  None the less, there must be enough recycled water to cultivate mass amounts of algae, and account for a rising population and rising demand for fuel.

The Land Issue

Algae can be grown in numerous different habitats, creating much room for alterations in research when optimizing growth and lipid production.  With choosing a specific algal strain, it is important to take into consideration where the strain is grown.  It is important to identify the appropriate topography to sustain massive algae growth.  The land must also be relatively inexpensive to account for the expense of producing the algal fuels.

The Emissions Issue

It is still uncertain whether algae fuels actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  There are a number of aspects that go into analyzing the emission from algae fuel.  The entire lifecycle of the fuel, including the cultivation, extraction, transportation, distribution, and burning must be analyzed.

The Solution

Utilizing wastewater is perhaps our best bet for minimizing environmental effects of algae biofuel.  The article talks about specifically utilizing water sources near areas with excessive nutrients such as utilizing agricultural runoff.  In response to this, could this be done instead in controlled wastewater treatment plants?  This would help to provide a long-term solution for fuel, and one that is less susceptible to fluctuations in weather and other factors.  Although it is certain that algae can grow in wastewater, the rate of growth, production of lipids and available wastewater resources must be analyzed.

The media above of the algae to biofuel cycle was provided by refueling the future.yolasite.com.

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