Algae: The Future Fuel

Article written by Maryse Thomas in 2007 in the context of her high school studies

Note from editor: Maryse has since graduated from the McGill University of Montreal with a science degree and is now pursuing a Doctorate program in Neuroscience at McGill.   Unknown to most in 2007, her teenager prediction is manifesting everyday in America and the world.  There are now billions of dollars of investments in algae as an alternative source of fuel.

The most important organism on Earth is also one of the smallest. “If all six billion [humans] were to suddenly disappear, the Earth would barely notice; life would continue. But if the algae died, the Earth would soon become a barren almost lifeless rock” (Bloch). Algae are vital to life on Earth. They produce more than 71% of the world’s oxygen and simultaneously remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air (Bloch). Algae are also the foundation of most aquatic food chains. Humans have utilized algae for centuries as medicine, as a source of nutrition, as thickening agents in ice cream and cosmetics and more. Now, in a time of energy and environmental crisis, we are beginning to utilize algae as a source of fuel. These tiny photosynthetic organisms are rich in oil content, highly adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are beneficial to the environment. With industries and consumers on the lookout for an eco-friendly and economical alternative to oil, algae may be our greatest hope.

In September 2008, Bill Gates invested a considerable amount into Sapphire Energy, a company that has big hopes for a market in algae fuel. The company started with three friends discussing a very interesting question: Why is the biofuel industry spending so much time and energy to manufacture ethanol — a fundamentally inferior fuel?” (Winter). Ethanol and other plant based fuels are inefficient because they don’t produce much oil, especially considering the amount of land and resources they require to harvest. With algae, almost the entire organism is dedicated to converting carbon dioxide to lipids, natural oil, through photosynthesis. Some species of algae contain over 60% oil by weight.  According to researchers at Utah State University, algae yield approximately 10,000 gallons of oil per acre. “Our most productive feedstock today, the oil palm, doesn’t even come close with yields of 635 gallons/acre, and is followed distantly by the U.S. standard, soy, at 48 gallons of oil/acre” (Cornell). Their high oil content is only one of the many attractive characteristics of algae that have convinced people like Bill Gates that an investment in algae fuel is the right step to take.

A unique characteristic of algae is their ability to proliferate in harsh growing conditions like saltwater, waste-water and extreme temperatures. Several power plants across the United States are even channeling smokestack carbon dioxide emissions through pools of algae. The algae clean the emissions, keeping greenhouse gases out of the air and in exchange, the algae thrive on the added nutrients (Hartman). Because of this characteristic, algae can be cultivated in locations where it is impossible for corn or other crops to grow. In addition, algae grow continuously, 365 days a year, and at an incredible rate, doubling their mass several times a day. The United States Energy Department estimates that if all the petroleum fuel in the United States were replaced with algae fuel, it would require 15,000 square miles to grow, an area just a few thousand miles larger than the state of Maryland (Hartman). This is less than 1/7th the area use to harvest corn in the United States in 2000. The unique ability of algae to grow in a wide range of conditions and at breakneck speed makes them the “ultimate in renewable energy” (Walton).

At the same time that we are solving the energy crisis, algae fuel will help us solve the environmental crisis. Even if we weren’t depleting our resources of petroleum and gasoline, they would still be creating immense problems. When fuel is burned, it releases carbon dioxide into the air, heating our planet. As algae grow, they take carbon dioxide out of the air and recycle it (Bloch). In addition, algae fuel is biodegradable, relatively harmless to the environment if spilled, and the production of algae fuel does not affect freshwater resources. Not only can algae fuel be used to power our cars, it has also been turned into jet fuel and home heating oil. Skeptics of algae fuel claim that it “could never compete economically with fossil fuels” (Walton), but the oil yield per acre, efficiency in engineering and benefits to the environment should be significant enough to convince them otherwise. “Literally and figuratively, this is green fuel” (Walton).

About 10,000 years ago, the greatest revolution in human history was the development of agriculture. Prior to this, humans were nomadic and lived as hunter-gatherers, forced to follow their food and flee from predators to survive. The development of agriculture allowed them to finally settle down, produce food for themselves and domesticate animals. What many people don’t realize is that not only did humans domesticate animals during this period; they also domesticated microorganisms. They encouraged some species to ferment crops, used yeast to make bread and alcohol, and bacteria to make yogurt and cheese (Bloch). Without these developments, our society could not have progressed to what it is today. Now, the agricultural revolution has come full circle and we must utilize the world’s most important organism to complete it. Algae as a source of food, medicine, oxygen and fuel are certainly proving to be invaluable to humans. Because of its high oil content, capacity to grow in a wide range of conditions and minimal carbon footprint, algae fuel is the solution to the energy and global warming crises. It is time that humans humbled themselves and turned to one of the smallest organisms on earth to answer our generation’s biggest problems.

Bibliography

  • Bloch, Len. “Algae: Nature’s Smallest Gift. Fun-science-project-ideas.com. Accessed 1/29/09. <http://www.fun-science-project-ideas.com/E-book-about-algae.html>.
  • Cornell, Clayton B. “Algae Biodiesel May Soon Be Reality.” Green Options. May 24, 2007. Accessed 1/30/09. <http://claytonbodiecornell.greenoptions.com/2007/05/24/algae-biodiesel-may-soon-be-reality/>.
  • Green, Hank. “Bill Gates Invests in Algae Fuel.” EcoGeek. September 17, 2008. Accessed 1/30/09. <http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/2136/>.
  • Hartman, Eviana. “A Promising Oil Alternative: Algae Energy.” The Washington Post. January 6, 2008. Accessed 1/30/09. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/03/AR2008010303907.html>.
  • Steinman, Alan D. “Algae,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008. Accessed 1/30/09. <http://encarta.msn.com>.
  • Walton, Marsha. “Algae: The Ultimate in Renewable Energy.” CNN News. April 1, 2008. Accessed 1/30/09. <http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/04/01/algae.oil/index.html>.
  • Winter, Jozef. “World’s First Renewable Gasoline.” EcoGeek. May 30, 2008. Accessed 1/30/09. <http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/1687/70/>.

3 thoughts on “Algae: The Future Fuel

  1. alan1940quantumleap says:

    On September 17, 2008, this prediction was published: “So far, no company has made cost-competitive fuel at large scale from algae. But a handful predict they will within three years.” Here we are 5 years later. Are we any closer to the reality of commercially viable algae based fuel?
    Here is an article from Nanowerk.com dated February 29, 2016: “Despite high expectations and extensive research and investment in the last decade, technological options are still in developing stages and key resources for algal growth are still too onerous for economically viable production of algal biofuels, according to a JRC literature review…”
    I can only imagine Bill Gates’ disappointment that algae has failed to live up to earlier expectations as a viable fuel source. Are there political or financial considerations that may be blocking that development?
    The high hopes of Maryse Thomas in 2007 have, unfortunately, failed to materialize. What happened?

    • Alan, right? Hey hopes are just hope… but hard work and economics will increase research and projects… somewhat like solar and wind power, these technologies are taking shape over decades… I have no doubt that algae base biofuel will fill the gap between fossil fuels and solar for centuries to come… hey we never thought we would put a man on the moon, never mind mars, but we will because its possible…

    • Exxon is heavily in to it. The US DOE is heavily into it. Be patient…. it is in the cards.

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