As I write this, the price of crude oil is a little over $92 a barrel. In my neck of the woods,rural PA, gas is about $3.75 a gallon. The last time I filled up the fuel oil tank at my house it cost me more than my first car. Fossil based fuels are ex-pen-sive. Algae might just be a replacement for those diminishing fossil fuels. Algae based biofuels do not have the same ethical concerns as first generation biofuels (such as ethanol derived from corn) because algae are not a food resource It can be turned into biodiesel, biogasoline, methane, jet fuel and it can even be engineered to produce pure hydrogen. Let’s look at how this simple slime may help keep us on the move for generations to come.
Sky high oil prices, along with competing demands between other biofuel sources and the fact that there is just not enough used french fry oil to go around, have sparked a renewed interest in the development of oil from algae. This is also sometimes known as “oilgae” or algaculture (the farming of algae). There are several eco-friendly upsides to using algae as a fuel source. First of all, algaculture does not affect fresh water sources. It utilizes waste water and/or sea water on land that is not suitable for traditional agriculture. The algae used in the process are, of course, biodegradable so one doesn’t have to worry too much about a spill.
Algae is packed with energy. Real energy and not the woo-woo kind. It can yield from 10 to 100 times more energy per unit area than other second generation biofuels made from non-food crops like reeds and wild grasses. As a point of comparison, one biofuels company states that algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two car garage than a football field sized plot of soybeans. This is owing to the fact that almost the entire organism uses sunlight to make lipids (fatty acids) or oil. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if fuel from algae were to replace all of the petroleum based fuels in the United States it would require 15,000 square miles of land to produce. This is less than one-seventh of the area used to harvest corn in the U.S. in 2000.
Algal fuels have additional climate benefits above and beyond that of first generation biofuels. Algae capture two pounds of CO2 in each pound of algae produced. If waste CO2 from emissions of a coal-fired power plant is pumped into algae-culture systems, algal biofuel production can have the added benefit of CO2 recycling, i.e. converting waste CO2 into a useable form of energy. Finally, algal fuels produce valuable co-products, such as nutritional supplements and animal feed which may be able to offset some of the processing costs.
Why don’t we jump right on this? Like most things in life it comes down to money. Current production methods are prohibitively expensive. While the Department of Energy estimates $8 per gallon after scale-up of current technologies, the Navy recently paid $425 per gallon in an algal fuel purchase. The cost of farming algae as a biofuel must be cut by about 90 percent if it is to become commercially viable and reduce pressure on food prices, according to research by Dutch scientists. Opinions differ over how far and how fast these costs will decrease, but the Department of Energy estimates “many years.” According to the head of the Algal Biomass Organization, algae fuel can reach price parity with oil in 2018 if granted production tax credits.
So, there you go. Algae is and has been in the running as one of the best bets out there to replace fossil fuels. Just how big a role it will play, no one knows at this time. If you would like to know more about oilgae, please click here. The oilgae website has everything you’d care to know (and more) about making biofuel from algae. There is even an oilgae club to join if you are so inclined.