Move over Crude Oil .. Oilgae here I come!!

Imagine a biofuel feedstock that saves the world without raising food prices, a vacuum that sucks up globe-warming carbon dioxide, and even a material that makes bioplastics, which disintegrate easily into compost. Yes! I’m talking about Algae – the pond scum that might one day become the source of fuel for the entire world!!

The search for alternative biofuels is not new. Biofuels from crops like corn and soybean, not long ago, were being touted to be the solution to our energy crisis. But they have come under attack recently. In 2005, the United States Congress began to require widespread use of ethanol in motor fuels. However, biofuel production takes scarce land out of food production exacerbating the food shortage crisis. By some estimates, meeting the biofuel goals in US law will require an amount of farmland equal to the states of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.

Algae – a huge family of more than 30,000 organisms that photosynthesize sunlight but lack roots, shoots, and leaves, – grows quickly, with some species (under the right conditions) nearly doubling in volume overnight. And nearly half the body weight of some species may be lipids. According to marine biologists, marine algae are the most efficient organisms on Earth for absorbing light energy and converting it into a natural biomass oil product, the biofuel equivalent of crude oil.

Now, Algae – pond scum, sea weed, kelp – whatever you wish to call it, has several advantages from sustainability perspective, over other biofuel candidates. For one, algae can grow in places away from the farmlands & forests, thus minimizing the damages caused to the eco- and food chain systems. Algae can be grown on barren desert land using salt water, averting competition with agricultural cropland and the need for large amounts of precious fresh water for irrigation. Secondly, the yields of oil from algae are orders of magnitude higher than those for traditional oilseeds.

Another advantage – as they require carbon dioxide for growth, algae are inherently carbon neutral, and they can suck up CO2 directly from industrial pollution sources. Imagine growing algae next to smoke stacks not only feeds the algae but reduces pollution from power plants!! Furthermore, algae can feed off the nutrients in discarded wastewater. Environmental scavengers that can produce fuel – Oilgae – the sustainable energy source of the future!!

The prospect of squeezing billions of gallons of biofuel oil from algae is enticing, but several challenges lie in the transformation of algae into a viable and realistic fuel option. Algae can be finicky. Too much light or too little, and algae stops producing. Too hot or too cold, algae stops producing. Wrong nutrients or too many nutrients, again the same thing. Invasive species can overwhelm the desired species, contaminating the whole batch. And when you grow a large amount of algae, the cultures eventually get so thick that it blocks light, preventing the optimal growth of more algae.

The idea to use algae in a fuel capacity is not new either. It was first tested about 50 years ago, when MIT scientists experimented with growing algae for biofuel. In the 1970s, the Department of Energy spent $3.3 million to establish its Aquatic Species Program (ASP), which was eventually shut down in 1996. The problem was finding a cost-effective way to grow the algae on such a massive scale in the lab as well as a cheap method for extracting the oil to make it a viable alternative. But 30 years ago, when ASP was first funded, a gallon of gas cost about 70 cents. But now, with gas prices rising (upwards of $4/gallon at the height of oil crisis), algae as a source of oil might become more competitive.

Algae might take center-stage in our quest for an alternate source of energy, if gas prices continue to rise and as long-term oil supplies become increasingly suspect, and society begins to awaken to the issues of fossil fuel emissions and a warming planet. But, before algal-derived biofuels have the potential to become a major source of transportation fuel, there’s a lot of work to be done. There are several startups dealing with these challenges. For a list of 15 startups that are pioneering this work, follow the link to: 15 Algae startups bringing pond scum to fuel tanks

Move over crude oil! Oilgae here I come!! I’m more than the nori that wraps the sushi or the carrageenan that thickens the toothpaste. I might be your successor!!!

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