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Why haven’t we switched to algae fuel already?

The simple answer to the question posed in the title is that algae fuel isn’t yet ready for widespread adoption. But the theoretical potential of biofuel made from algae is huge, and it is believed by many that algae could be a game changer if the remaining hurdles can be overcome. It is a fuel which could not only greatly reduce the greenhouse emissions caused by transportation, but it is also has strategic value.

When we in America say “biofuel” we’re usually talking about corn-based ethanol, as it is by far the most-produced type of biofuel in the US. This has drawn some criticism, and with good reason. The land which is being used to grow the corn used for the ethanol could be used instead to grow food, which it’s no secret that the world needs more of. Corn is also one of the least efficient crops to use for fuel, and even if we were just talking about ethanol, biofuel producers in Brazil have found that sugar cane produces about six times the amount of fuel for the same amount of resources used to grow it.

So biofuel researchers have been looking into different crops for use as biofuel, and there have been some which have proven to be big leaps forward. Rapeseed and coconut produce much higher yields of biofuel per acre than corn, and palm oil is several times more efficient than other land crops; although whatever your stoner friends tell you, hemp is a terrible crop for biofuel. But now we come to algae, which grows and can be harvested so quickly that it can produce some 30 times the amount of fuel per acre as any land crop, according to estimates by the US Department of Energy. This efficient use of land would be a positive no matter what, but there is more good news. Algae can be grown anywhere, so otherwise unarable land can be used and no land need be taken away from food production. In fact, several Israeli companies have been growing algae for commercial use in the Negev desert for 20 years now, so the technology already exists.

Since the growing process actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the fuel produces a lower level of emissions than fossil fuels when burned, algae fuel is theoretically very close to carbon-neutral. It can also be grown in waste water, another big improvement over land crops which require fresh water. Algae fuel can also be used in the vehicles we already have, and putting the changes into effect would be far less difficult than, say, switching everybody to electric cars. This brings up another point, there is no battery-powered solution for trucking or aviation, whereas algae fuel can be used for all forms of transportation.

The DOE has been watching algae fuel research carefully. It is something which can be produced completely domestically, which can’t be said about other fuel types. Their current estimates say that enough algae to meet all of our transportation needs could be grown in an area slightly bigger than Maryland. But of course, this could all be in deserts, on top of mountains or off-shore. Even though the electricity which we produce for electric cars comes from home, many of the minerals in the batteries do not. Some of these, such as cobalt, have even been known to come from conflict regions like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Trading a dependence on Saudi oil for a dependence on the DRC’s blood batteries isn’t exactly a step forward, hence the interest from the DOE. It was the DOE who recently commissioned a study from the National Research Council on the economic and environmental viability of algae fuel in its current state.

As mentioned before, we’re not there yet. This really isn’t a huge surprise, nobody in the algae community was saying it was ready. Even the Algal Biomass Organization is saying that, if given the appropriate tax credits, algae fuel won’t be ready for the mass market until 2018. At the moment, there’s only a handful of stations selling algae fuel in the US, and they’ve only been selling it for about a week as of this writing. The fuel being sold isn’t even entirely algae fuel, but rather a mix of diesel and algae oil. Even so, the company which makes the fuel, known as Soladiesel, says it gives a 20 percent reduction in emissions versus pure fossil-fuel diesel.

The hurtles in the way of more widespread adoption are pretty much what you’d expect: the growing process needs to be made more economically viable and environmentally sustainable. Fortunately, these are largely related issues. As Joel Cuello, a member of the NRC committee which conducted the recent study, says “In my opinion, you can’t divorce the two. As a matter of fact, most efforts aiming at lowering the production costs is to make the process more sustainable in terms of energy, water, and nutrient use.”

There are several ways to go about this. One is to find (or engineer) a string of algae which excretes the oil, thus eliminating the need for harvesting. This would save huge amounts of time, energy and money all at the same time. Another suggestion is to find an efficient way to use waste water including municipal sewage. This would effectively solve the water and nutrient problems at the same time, a huge step forward. In fact, since the release of the NRC’s findings, researchers at the University of Michigan have found a way to pressure cook algae into crude oil in a way which eliminates the drying step, thus further streamlining the process.

This all sounds great, but it is important to remember that algae is not where it needs to be yet, and it might not be a great idea to put all of our eggs in this particular basket. On the other hand, if we could make it work, it has the potential to be the only really all-encompassing solution to our energy needs. Next week we’ll be taking a look at some of the man-made problems facing algae fuel research.