After oil: Can we power the planet with algae?

[Global] Algae are photosynthetic microorganisms that grow in abundance in the world’s marine environments, and there are thousands of species, each with its own unique characteristics. Recent advances have made significant progress in harnessing algae to meet humanity’s ever-increasing energy needs.

A growing awareness of the hazards posed by climate change has led to a wave of innovation in finding clean sources of energy.

Algae photosynthesize energy by collecting and processing light from the sun. As they grow and reproduce, this energy accumulates within the population. When the time is ripe, they can be harvested and refined into biofuel, which can replace gasoline, diesel and other petroleum-based products. In contradistinction to traditional fuels, those made from algae are inherently carbon-neutral because any CO2 released had been previously captured by the algae from the atmosphere.

There are quite a few biofuels on the market today, including those made from corn, soybeans and other crops, but algae yields multiple benefits in addition to its service as a fuel source. The yields per acre of algae are considerably higher than with other biofuels, allowing us to conserve arable land areas. Biofuels sourced from food crops drive up the prices of agricultural products, which is not the case for algae although it is used – in a limited quantity – as food.

There are also many useful byproducts of algae harvesting, including animal feed, cosmetics and dietary supplements, which means that growers aren’t tied exclusively to fuel prices as the be-all and end-all of their economic well-being. Finally, algae has shown promise as a means of filtering waste-water, so it could be used to generate power while cleaning up our waterways at the same time. This final virtue is what makes algae-power particularly desirable, as clean drinking water is projected to become ever more scarce in the face of looming climate change.


Plenty of work needs to be done, however, before energy derived from algae is ready for prime time. Current processes are inefficient, and it often requires more energy to operate the needed infrastructure than can be obtained from the algae in the end. In order to promote rapid growth, some producers employ a lot of water and fertilizers, which have a large carbon footprint even though the algae themselves don’t. Right now, algae-based biofuels aren’tcost competitive with gasoline, and that would have to change before consumers decide to switch over to it especially in market-oriented cultures like the United States.

Despite these problems, several real-world studies have found immediate applications for algae. Researchers from Rice University placed algae in wastewater treatment areas in Houston, and they found that it led to a 90 percent reduction in nitrates and a 50 percent drop in phosphorous in the treated water. There chemicals can pose issues if they’re released back into the natural environment or into the drinking water supply. Meanwhile, the government of Canada is exploring ways of using algae to consume greenhouse gas emissions even as it creates biofuel, and Canadian energy provider Alberta Energy has even developed procedures to use certain types of algae to clean up oil spills.

Besides replacing dirty gasoline, diesel, and other automotive fuels, algae could have a place in the homes and offices of tomorrow. A few scientists are trying to create an algae battery, which would be able to charge up much more quickly than traditional batteries and would therefore be able to power our lights, HVAC systems and almost any other electrical appliances contained in any building. The widespread potential of algae for clean, renewable energy generation is exciting because we’ll need all the help we can get in the coming years to hold global warming down to acceptable levels.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the energy sector was responsible for the release of more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, and the lion’s share of this was caused by burning fossil fuels. It’s clear that any reductions in the use of these poisonous types of energy will pay off in the form of improved worldwide ecology both now and in the future.

A lot of work still needs to be done before algae becomes a viable alternative to fossil fuels. The rewards would be great, however, so it’s worthwhile to further pursue this line of energy production. Besides a halt to global warming, we could also see lower prices for food, cleaner water and a wealth of other benefits.


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