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Check Out These Quick Questions on Algae Biofuels

Green Biofuel Could Play Significant Role in Energy Future


Algae Research

Scientists are working on a process to make hydrogen directly from sunlight and water using algae.

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

Thoughts of algae are likely to conjure up images of stagnant ponds. It can be slimy and come in many colors of the rainbow. Algae is often thought of as nothing but a nuisance, but in green biofuel circles, this tiny little plant that has inhabited the Earth since seemingly the beginning of time, holds promise of helping to diversify the nation's energy portfolio and reduce its reliance on petroleum.

Read on to learn more about this emerging alternative fuel:

What makes algae attractive as a biofuel?
For one thing, algae is plentiful. Algae can be found around the globe. And when provided with an optimal environment, it will grow in seemingly unlimited amounts. Besides its ease of production, algae's value is highly concentrated with about half of its composition, by weight, made up of lipid oil--the key to producing a biofuel. Since the 1970s, when gas lines shocked many Americans into the reality of a finite petroleum-based energy supply, researchers have been hard at work, studying algae oil and refining methods for converting it to algae biodiesel, a fuel that can burn much cleaner--and more efficiently--than even petroleum.

How significant is algae as a biofuel?
While you can probably guess that there are many types of algae out there, you may be a bit shocked to learn that plants belonging to the algae family number somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 or so. Through research over time, scientists have been able to determine which strains are best suited for algae biofuel use based on the differing levels of oil that can be extracted. For example, one of the best algae strains out there for biodiesel production is akin to the type you find sitting atop ponds on a warm summer day.

To transition from pond scum to biodiesel, photosynthesis comes into play with algae pulling carbon dioxide from the air and replacing it with oxygen. In fact, many algae biodiesel plants are built near energy plants that produce carbon dioxide to further halt pollution through the recycling of carbon dioxide. A 100-acre algae biodiesel plant has the potential to produce about 100 million gallons of biodiesel on an annual basis. Taking into account such numbers, it would take about 140 billion gallons of algae biodiesel to completely replace petroleum-based products each year. That means algae biodiesel companies would require about 95 million acres of land on which to build biodiesel plants. That seems like a huge amount, right? Only until you compare it with the billions of acres that would be necessary to produce biodiesel from other feedstocks. And, unlike oil crops that require arable land, algae can be grown anywhere indoors and does not require land that could be put to use for food production.

Why is there interest in developing algae as a biofuel?
Biofuels can be made from a number of crops, but common feedstocks such as soy and corn, require large amounts of tillable land, not to mention water and a lot of other inputs. These crops can cause use of petroleum-based chemicals in the form of fertilizers as well as petroleum-based fuels for operating tilling and harvesting machinery, in order to grow and harvest the crops for biofuel use. While sustainable farming techniques can reduce the amount of petroleum-based fuels and non-sustainable products used, these practices continue to place a stress on the environment, calling into question its sustainability for future biofuel production.

In contrast, the development of algae as a biofuel can make do with existing natural systems to do most of the work, making the production of algal oil both clean and, as techniques become more sophisticated, economical as well. Algal oil represents a cleaner burning alternative to petroleum and one that is domestically produced. Researchers working in the area of algae biofuels continue to develop harvesting, extracting and cultivating processes that improve the economical and environmental benefits of algae fuel.

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