While algae produce significant amounts of energy via oil production, it is vital that these oils are harnessed utilizing less energy than can be produced from the fuel. This will ensure future sustainability in our energy use. There are a number of improvements in the process of producing algal biofuels that could make energy sustainability possible.
To begin, it is necessary to select optimal strains of algae for biofuel production based on lipid accumulation and rate of biomass production. Strains that can withstand weather fluctuations and harsh climates are also important. A recent study exposed a new yellow-green algae found in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado which was found to exhibit many of these ideal characteristics. The strain was found to grow in extreme conditions (4oC), and contained large amounts of stored lipids. The researchers also found that while lipids are often produced when grown under stressful conditions (i.e. a lack of nitrogen), these algae don’t require additional treatment to promote lipid production. (Nelson, Mengistu, Ranum, Celio, Mashek, Mashek, Lefebvre 7)
Specific strains of algae can also be engineered to optimize the growth rate and lipid production. For example, research conducted at Iowa State University (ISU) exposed a way to significantly increase the rate of biomass production of algae in carbon-enriched areas. The research focused on two genes found in algae (LCIA and LCIB). These genes work to capture CO2 in carbon-depressed environments in order for the algae to continue to produce biomass. Scientists found a way to instruct the genes to work under carbon-enriched environments, causing the algae to produce biomass at an accelerated rate. (Kuester)
In addition to improving algal strains, advancements in technology to make extraction techniques more efficient is an effective way to harness the most of the energy contained in algae. Researchers at the University of Michigan found a way to produce biocrude from algae in only a minute’s time, retrieving nearly 90% of the energy originally contained in the algae (University of Michigan). This discovery, by significantly decreasing the reaction time, would allow for smaller volume reactors for biofuel production, as well as allow for more algae to be converted to fuel. This makes a significant contribution to the goal of producing mass amounts of algae in a cost effective way.
There are a number of breakthroughs that have contributed to the advancements of algal biofuels, but there is a great deal more obstacles that need to be overcome in order for algae to make it’s way into the national biofuel market. Researchers need to address the issues of land resources, environmental effects, and economic impacts.