Is Algae the New Fuel of the Future?

What does one think of when he hears the word, “algae”? Many people think of how algae grows in aquatic environments and cause the many pool/pond owners problems. Those people have to encounter the problem of trying to remove algae from their aquatic environments. Pool owners are constantly frustrated about the large amounts of algae in their pools. However, this amount of algae may actually benefit society when looking at it from a different perspective.

Algae is becoming a promising renewable biofuel, which is a substance/organic molecules that can be converted to oil. Scientists have used various mechanical and chemical methods to extract oil from it and convert it to fuel that is actually viable. “Today, the U.S. uses about 150 billion gallons of gasoline a year, and 50 billion gallons of diesel and jet fuel,” says Philip Pienkos, group manager of the applied science group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Can algae biomass be trusted over the other biofuel alternatives?

Many people do not think so. Algae is far from a perfect solution. It will take anywhere from five to fifteen years for algae to be produced on a scale that would be meaningful to the nation’s fuel needs. “There’s a significant amount of capital required for algal oil producers to scale up to commercial meaningful quantities,” says Jim Rekoske, general manager at Honeywell’s UOP division, which provides technologies to the gas processing, refining and petrochemical industry. In addition, trying to grow concentrations of fuzzy and green organisms is like trying to balance the water in a fish tank. The water needs to be just the right temperature and right amount of carbon dioxide to not have exponential growth spurt. Invasive species can also invade and choke up the algae growth. Finally, the biofuel process is expensive. A gallon of the fuel extracted from algae costs a whopping $33.81 dollars, according to Solix Biosystems, an algae biofuel company situated in Fort Collins. The production cost is so high due to the energy required to circulate gases to grow algae and to dry out the biomass.

However, algae biofuels are not as untrustworthy and frustrating as most people think. Although algae biofuel is expensive and time consuming, algae can be considered an alternative for fuel source due to its streamlined process, low carbon emissions, and its ability to replace US oil exports.

Crude oil can be processed into many different types of oils, such as petroleum. In order to make crude oil, algae in the biofuels follow a pretty simple process. Lipids are extracted from algae biomass and go through chemical processing to create crude oil. The algae biomass is grown in photobioreactors—triangular chambers made from sheets of polyethylene plastic (similar to a painter’s dropcloth). The photobioreactors keep the algae floating on the top of the water, which maximizes algae growth. It also keeps invasive species out of the algae population.

Algae biofuel land usage is not what it seems when compared to other biofuel feedstocks. An average acre of algae within the algae biofuel industry can produce 15,000 gallons of biodiesel each year. By comparison, an average acre of corn produces 420 gallons of ethanol per year, and an acre of soybeans yields just 48 gallons of biodiesel per year. Michael Atkins, CEO of Ocean Technology and Environmental Consulting, exerts that the amount of land for growing algae is small yet yields much higher biomass. Another CEO, Douglas Henston of Solix Biosystems, argues, “If we were to replace all of the diesel that we use in the United States with an algae derivative, we could do it on an area of land that’s about one-half of 1 percent of the current farm land that we use now.”

In addition, algae grow through a process called photosynthesis, which takes in carbon dioxide. Because algae biofuel is essentially carbon-neutral, the carbon emitted when it is burned had just recently been absorbed as food, which means that the net carbon dioxide emission is essentially the same as if the algae had never been grown. Algae-based bio-diesel has a GHG footprint that is 93 percent less than conventional diesel (US Department of Energy). Carbon dioxide emissions of algae biofuel are low when compared to other biofuels. As a matter of fact, algae biofuel produces negative carbon emissions which mean that carbon dioxide is taken away from the atmosphere for the growth of algae. However, biofuels such as corn and soybeans emit 81-85 kilograms/megajoule of energy and 49 kilograms/megajoule of energy, respectively. In this way, if algae biofuels were used more, carbon dioxide emissions would decrease drastically.

Although there seems to be evidence supporting that algae biofuel may not be the best way to produce oil, algae biofuel seems to be better than other biofuel alternatives. The problems of algae biofuels are being solved and, in the future, biofuel may be the best alternative for oil. This is through the renovation of algae biofuel storage (photobioreactors), large amounts of oil produced per acre of algae, and low carbon dioxide emissions.

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