What does a car have in common with a jet plane? They both run on liquid fossil fuels — and in the near future, they may both be powered by seaweed.
Algae might seem like a last-ditch effort to secure a reliable fuel source for our carbon-spewing population, but the topic has actually been in development since the 1940s. In fact, interest in using algae to produce biofuels hit its stride in the 1970s, when embargos and oil price surges made renewable fuel sources look like the best alternative to petroleum.
Since then, algae has been a hot topic because it carries plenty of promising pros. Here’s why algae fuel could be the next best thing since sliced bread for sustainability.
Algae Is A Sustainability Powerhouse
The term “algae” refers to a variety of plantlike organisms that grow naturally all over the world. One of the most enticing benefits of using algae as a fuel source is that it can be grown in huge quantities without negatively impacting the environment — a notable claim that few other fuel sources can make. In fact, some researchers believe that algae could be anywhere from 10 to 100 times more productive than traditional bioenergy sources.
Algae is a green beast because it does what everything else can’t: it can grow on lands that can’t be used for ordinary crops, and it isn’t picky about its water source. Algae is able to grow with non-potable water that isn't suitable for farming. It doesn’t require any insecticides or herbicides, and it doesn’t even need a designated area to grow. If you were so inclined, you could literally grow algae in a bag on the ocean, and it wouldn't impact the area’s natural biodiversity.
Even better, growing algae can actually reverse the damaging effects of extracting fossil fuels. Studies state that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent. As an added bonus, once algae is converted into biofuel, it is much less toxic and far more degradable than petroleum-based fuels.
Biofuel Can Replace Other Polluting Fuels
Algae stores energy in the form of lipids, or oils, which can be converted into various fuels. While soybean produces 50 gallons of oil per acre, and rapeseed produces less than 130 gallons per acre, algae holds its own by producing up to 10,000 gallons per acre. Once that oil is harvested, it can be refined to replace diesel, gasoline, methane, and even jet fuel (among other fuels) with a renewable alternative.
In an industry survey conducted in 2015, more than 91 percent of algae producers said that the price of algae fuel will fall below $5.00 per gallon by 2020. Cost competitiveness is the biggest obstacle for the future of algae fuel. Because the technology is still fairly new, researchers have yet to establish a stable, cost-effective way to mass-produce enough algae to meet the demands of more than 7 billion people.
The Problem With Carbon
Interestingly, research into algae fuel could have been far more advanced if the cost of petroleum hadn’t dipped in the mid-1990s. In 1996, algae biodiesel research was put on hold due to a lack of funding. But with growing concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and energy security, interest in algae biofuels resurged in the early 2000s. This time around, we have a better idea of what’s at stake if we can’t figure out a way to manage our impact on greenhouse gas emissions. After all, CO2 levels haven’t been this high since dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Back in 2006, Algenol was founded as an industrial biotech company that focused on commercializing algae technology in order to produce biofuel. However, the company underwent a sudden restructuring in late 2015, shifting its focus away from fuel and into water treatment and carbon capture.
In a resignation letter, outgoing CEO Paul Woods explained Algenol’s new direction by saying, “Low cost fuels cannot continue to be the sole focus of Algenol. We live in a new reality of low oil prices, low demand and abundant supply.”
Specifically regarding the issue of carbon emissions, Woods stated, “I hope the world catches up with Algenol in seeing the need for carbon mitigation is now, not 10 years from now. Fancy accounting doesn’t remove carbon from the atmosphere we all share.”
Another challenge we face with algae fuel, then, is a return to lethargy. The oil industry is facing its steepest downturn since the 1990s, and as Woods pointed out, low oil prices cause less pressure to research renewable fuels. If we overlook the value of algae fuel research, advancements in algae biotechnology will suffer.
Right now, major universities worldwide are researching algae fuel production, including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Glasgow, and the University of California, Davis. But according to the Algae Biomass Organization, some of the top priorities in building a robust algae industry include:
- Support from federal agencies into algae and carbon utilization research
- Regulatory approvals for algae-derived products
- Stable and predictable support in tax policy
- Regulating carbon usage
Algae is a promising move for biofuel research. But don't expect to pump algae into your gas tank anytime soon. The earliest we'll see seaweed hit the market as a viable fuel source is around the year 2030. Until then, we’ll have our fingers crossed and our eyes on the prize: a renewable biofuel that helps keep our planet healthy, happy, and green.