I was fortunate enough to close out this past summer with a Labor Day weekend vacation, where I found myself in front of a campfire making s’mores. A time-honored summer tradition, and a simple pleasure indeed.
As my mind wandered, it landed on the fact that I was burning biomass to roast my marshmallow. I also reflected that this three-day weekend was dedicated to the millions of men and women who built this great nation. Our dams. Our roads. Our skycrapers, submarines and jumbo jets.
It made me focus on the fact that today, our world is at an inflection point. Record droughts in California create bathtub rings around our country’s most iconic lakes and reservoirs. Toxic algae blooms leave vast swathes of lakes unswimmable at best, and uninhabitable for many species at worst.
These issues are the result of phenomena both man-made and natural, yet both are accentuated by the simple fact that we are struggling to meet the demands of a growing population. We are at the front end of a massive demand curve for just about everything that matters—energy, food, water—resources that must be managed carefully to ensure a sustainable future.
It may seem hopeless at times, but I believe the answer to these challenges is right in front of us. It’s technology, not ideology, philosophy or orthodoxy. Technology is giving us seeds that are more productive than ever before in human history. Technology is giving us new ways to use waste biomass. Technology is giving us new fertilizers that aren’t derived from petroleum. And, technology is helping us reinvent how we farm, upending the notion that “harvest” is a season of the year.
The U.S. algae industry is at the forefront of addressing these seemingly intractable problems of concerns over water and land. More than 100 companies are working day and night to leverage the incredible attributes of algae to drive supply in the food, feed and fuel industries. While it’s true that the early days of the algae industry were focused on algae-to-fuel pathways, today’s industry is incredibly diversified. There are companies designing algal oils for use in the food products industry, companies marketing nutriceuticals, drugs, cosmetics and health supplements derived from algae, and some of the most popular consumer health juices, including those from Odwalla and Naked, contain algae (spirulina). In addition, both algae producers and end-customers in the animal nutrition industries are looking to algae-derived proteins for their products.
Let’s not forget Omega-3 fatty acids, either. Increasingly, companies are turning to algae rather than animal or fish sources for Omega-3s, given cost, volatility and concerns about sustainability. I made the case in a recent article in a trade magazine for Omega-3 suppliers of all types, that algae will one day be the dominant supplier of Omega-3s.
All the while, demonstration and commercial facilities for the production of algae-based biofuels are underway.
Why algae, why now? It’s simple. What we’ve known, and what has been proven, about algae during the past two decades, is simply now more important than ever. The world needs a new crop that grows prolifically on small amounts of land, doesn’t compete with traditional agriculture, and can recycle rather than release nutrients. It must also require fresh water or months of growth before harvest, and be able to produce a variety of products for a variety of industries.
Like other biomass options, a robust algae industry will result in increased jobs and economic development here in the U.S., jobs that can’t be outsourced and, in many cases, will be created in rural areas hit hard by the recession.
We live in a time when raw materials that used to be free or plentiful are no longer available. Scarcity and volatility in commodity markets have driven up the price for many staples, including animal feed, fertilizer and water. Yet, at the same time, the demand for these commodities on a global scale continues upward, unabated. So, the case for biomass is really no longer a question of being “green” or being “sustainable,” rather it is a necessity to be able to meet the demands of a growing population. It’s about building a great future.
Author: Matt Carr
Executive Director, Algae Biomass Organization
View original article at: Reflecting on the Future