Lay Press

Bold and Uncertain:  The potential of algal biofuels

This is a microscopic photograph of green algae.

This is a microscopic photograph of green algae.

“… researchers estimate that an area the size of New Mexico could provide enough oil to match current U.S. petroleum consumption.” (Researchers at the University of Michigan)

“Hu et al. (2008) projected a possible yield of 200 barrels of oil per hectare (2.47 acres) of land used for growing photosynthetic algae.” (M. Menetrez)

“… the nation’s land and water resources could likely support the growth of enough algae to produce up to 25 billion gallons of algae-based fuel a year in the United States, one-twelfth of the country’s yearly needs.” (Tim Rickney)

“Replacing all U.S. trans- portation fuels with algal oil ‘would take a farm roughly the size of Maryland,’ notes Synthetic Genomics’s Venter” (David Biello  64)

As gas prices continue to increase, and the effect of global climate change becomes more apparent, there is a rising concern in the United States to find a sustainable energy source.  Our country is in need of a fuel source that achieves energy independence and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.  The United States is not alone in the pursuit of sustainability.  Scientists across the world are continually finding new prospective solutions to the ever-approaching energy crisis.  Certainly, a solution needs to be found, but exaggerating the truth is not the way to find it.  We need to be realistic about what the nation is investing in in order to obtain a sustainable solution.

Currently, the only commercial biofuel in the United States is corn ethanol, which has many underlying issues.  Utilizing corn creates a competition between food and fuel.  Not only is corn production for food being compromised to support the biofuel market, land use for other agricultural purposes are also compromised.  Corn cultivation for biofuels requires a large amount of arable land, which is hard to come by, to generate biofuels.  Corn ethanol biofuels also lack energy efficiency, which defeats their use as sustainable energy.

Recent discoveries on the growth and oil production characteristics of algae have sparked interest amongst many environmentalists as a solution to this biofuel slump.  These photosynthetic plants have the ability to harness sunlight to produce large amounts of oil, which can then be utilized as a biofuel.  There are a number of factors, which make algae a realistic focus for biofuel research.  In pursuit of funding for research in the area of algal biofuels, however, a realistic analysis of the fuel’s potential needs to be outspoken.  Without this, it will be difficult to find solutions without knowing the problems facing algal biofuels.  Al Darzins, a group member in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), expanded further on the subject:

“So, keep expectations real. If you don’t do that, then the funding agencies and public will develop overly optimistic and unrealistic expectations about what this technology can deliver and when. Over promising and under delivering is never a good situation to be in.” (Darzins, interview by David Shwartz)

The aspects that make algae worth pursuing are clear, and solve many problems that have arisen in corn ethanol production.  Algae have the ability to grow in a variety of habitats, many of these being otherwise useless areas.  Algae can be cultivated from non-arable land, as well as salt water and brackish coastal waters (Menetrez  7073).  This allows for mass production of algae without competition with agricultural land.

Scientists have also looked into algae cultivation in wastewater.  The wastewater provides nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous to promote algae growth, while the algae break up organic matter in the water, taking part in the wastewater treatment.  A recent study looked at this dual benefit of growing algae in wastewater for the case of India.  Researchers found promising data, indicating lipids could be extracted from algae in mass amounts to potentially solve India’s energy dependence crisis (Ramachandra, Madhab, Shilpi, Joshi  775).

Another attractive aspect of algal biofuels is their ability to yield a large amount of fuel for only a small area of land.  This is particularly appealing to environmentalists, as it resolves corn ethanol’s land issue.  It has been estimated that algae could produce a potential 200 barrels of oil per hectare of land (Menetrez  703).

As a final note, the use of algae biofuels would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, potentially slowing the effect of global climate change.  K. Hundt and B.V. Reddy calculated that if algal fuels replaced 60% of all coal and gas power plants, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of about 5% would be observed (294).  This effect represents the major driving force for the focus on biofuels.

These positive findings provide a convincing argument in favor of further research and development in the field of algal biofuels.  It is difficult to say if algae can be the one and only answer for fuel needs in the transportation sector, but it has certainly proven itself to be a topic of interest to environmental scientists.  It is something that needs to be researched further to evaluate its full potential as an energy source.

In order for algal biofuels to support energy use for the transit sector, a number of obstacles must be overcome.  First and foremost, technological advancements must be made to optimize the energy production for minimal use of land and resources.  These advancements must achieve energy efficiency for sustainability, as well as develop ways to mass-produce the biofuel.  This will come from finding and engineering algal strains with maximum lipid production and algal growth, as well as improving the extraction techniques for the isolation of oils.

A final, and imperative factor in implementing biofuels is that they are produced in a cost effective method. They must prove to be a reasonable alternative to petroleum for consumers.  This can be accomplished with government assistance through employing subsidies, often in the form of a tax incentive.  A number of European countries have implemented a variety of incentives, such as tax relief on domestic consumption tax and for flexible fuel vehicle registration tax.  Policy can also be passed to require fuel suppliers to meet a minimum biofuel sale percentage out of total sales.(Cansino, Pablo-Romero, Román, Yñiguez  6016-6018).

While these factors need not only bee achieved for future use of algal biofuels, they need to be addressed in current research endeavors.  With the varied statements for potential oil production, land use, and cost, it is difficult assess algae’s potential for biofuel use. A united analysis of algal biofuels needs to be attained and followed to achieve realistic data to attract government officials and investors.

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