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The Future of Fuel May Be Greener Than We Thought

Think of the smelly green layer of goo you’ve seen floating on a local pond. Or red tide, which may have kept you from swimming on an otherwise perfect beach day. Or kelp, frequently pictured with adorable otters. Pond scum, red tide, and kelp are all examples of algae. And one day you might just be fueling up your vehicle with fuel derived from its cells.

Algae are an up-and-coming source for biofuels. The tiny organisms produce a mix of fats and hydrocarbons which can be converted into oil. Though growing and converting algae into fuel is too expensive for large-scale development today, a few companies are experimenting with algae-derived fuel. Continuing research may make algae a viable fuel source in the coming years.

Biofuels, such as those made from algae or other plant matter, may have only recently gained the media spotlight, but research in the field has been ongoing for the past 20 years. Biofuels are renewable, unlike petroleum, offering a sustainable solution to the growing energy demand. Corn-based ethanol, already in some gasoline, switchgrass, and soybeans are just a few examples of the multitude of sources for biofuels. Algae, however, have the potential to generate up to 100-times more oil per area when compared to other bio-sources.

The evolving emphasis on biofuels is partially due to recent legislation, such as the Energy Independence and Security Act. The Act was passed by Congress in 2007 and mandated the incorporation of biofuels, as well as reduced emissions and greater mileage, in American vehicles. Domestic production of biofuels to satisfy the new regulations offers two major benefits: less dependence on foreign energy sources and less pollution. These new regulations, along with evidence of global climate change, national security interests, and government grants, have primed the market for investigation into biofuels such as oilgae.

Using algae in biofuels may have environmental benefits besides reducing reliance on gasoline. Algae absorbs nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, as it grows. Nitrogen and phosphorus are among those nutrients most frequently put into water ways by humans and can cause significant ecological disturbance. Since algae absorb these nutrients like sponges during their growth cycle, harvesting algae for use in creating biofuels also removes these harmful nutrients. Another attribute of algae is that it can be grown almost anywhere, including highly polluted waterways like that which flows into a sewage plant. A recent study demonstrated that not only can algae remove nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, they also have the potential to remove toxic elements from wastewater flows with adequate growth conditions.

Since algae can grow in wastewater and otherwise unusable aquatic environments, they avoid competition with many food sources, unlike land-based biofuel sources such as corn. With more and more mouths to feed, sourcing biofuels from algae increases the likelihood of satiating our appetites for both food and fuel with biologically-sourced alternatives.

Growing algae for fuel purposes, however, isn’t a simple matter. Algae species vary in their oil potential and reactions to growing conditions, such as the amount of available sunlight and carbon dioxide. While smaller-scale operations have produced biofuel and experiments have demonstrated improvement of waterways with algae growth, the two have not yet to be successfully paired in a commercial environment.

Will you be filling up your tank with fuel made from pond scum at your local gas station tomorrow, or next year? Likely not. But continued research and commercial experimentation just might make the future of fuel a little greener.

Sources

Department of Energy, Bioenergy Technologies Office. 2013. BioMass 2013: How the Advanced Bioindustry is Reshaping American Energy. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/bioenergy/biomass_2013.html. (last accessed February 5, 2014).

Greenwell, H.C., Laurens, L.M.L., Shields, R.J., Lovitt, R.W., Flynn, K.J. 2009. Placing microalgae on the biofuels priority list: a review of the technological challenges. Journal of the Royal Society. 7(46): 703-726).

Roberts, D.A., Nys, R., Paul, N.A. 2013. The Effect of CO2 on Algal Growth in Industrial Waste Water for Bioenergy and Bioremediation Applications. PLoS ONE 8(11):e81631.

Sivakumar, G., Xu,J., Thompson,R.W., Yang, Y., Randol-Smith, P., P.J. Weathers. 2012. Integrated green algal technology for bioremediation and biofuel. Bioresource Technology 107:1-9.

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2007. Plant Materials Program: Plant Materials Used for Biofuel. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1042282.pdf. (last accessed February 5, 2014).

* This story was written as part of a course in the Environmental Science & Policy program at the College of William & Mary, ENSP 249: Science Communication. For more information on the course, please email the course instructor, Dr. Ibes at dcibes@wm.edu.