Algae: The Fuel of the Future?
Palm oil comes from palm trees, sunflower oil comes from sunflowers, baby oil comes from babies (there’s some debate about this) and gasoline comes from…algae?
Technically, it comes from long-dead algae and zooplankton that have mixed with mud, been squished by layers of sediment and been exposed to extreme heat until it turns into the oil we recognize from the opening of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Jed Clampett was lucky: “One day he was shootin’ at some food, and up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.”
That “bubblin’ crude” isn’t quite so plentiful today so it’s time took at alternative fuels. Some engineers are focused on the practical—but not yet ready—cellulosic ethanol while others say they’ll be mass-marketing renewable gasoline made from living algae in just five years. (Still others hope for more sustainable ways to fuel our cars—like combustible urine.)
Renewable gasoline? Yup. It turns out that some species of single-celled algae are really oily (close to half of each organism’s body weight is oil) and they grow really quickly (doubling in mass in only a few hours). Because the green goodies grow so quickly, algae farmers can harvest them every day and produce amounts of biofuel that put other sources to shame.
An acre of corn and an acre of soybeans, both of which can only be harvested once a year, produce about 300 gallons of ethanol and 50 gallons of biodiesel, respectively, per year. An acre of algae can produce between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons of biofuel in a single year, maybe even more.
As far as crops go, algae (a.k.a. pond scum) are about as low maintenance as they come. They can—and do—grow in any climate and they only need three fairly ubiquitous ingredients to flourish: sun, carbon dioxide (CO2) and non-potable water. Better yet, they don’t require much space. One company has patented technology that stores algae in a vertical set-up of moving plastic bags. (With this system, they predict that they’ll be able to produce more than 100,000 gallons of oil per acre.)
All that oil can be converted into gasoline, biodiesel or jet fuel, all of which are compatible with our current refineries, cars and airplanes.
So, algae could produce lots of renewable fuel and that fuel wouldn’t require us to re-vamp our cars, planes or refineries. Big Whoop. Now, here’s the major selling point: since algae takes in CO2 and breaks down smog particles, cultivating algae could actually clean up the environment. The folks at MIT have shown that algae can at least clean up a power plant. By re-routing the exhaust pipes of the school’s power plant through a mixture of algae and water, they reduced CO2 emissions by 82% on sunny days and 50% on cloudy days—and cut the amount of smog-causing nitrogen oxide particles by 85%.
Yay! Algae will save the world! Well, not quite. While the process of creating fuel from algae may be carbon neutral (or even carbon negative), the process of burning the fuel to move our cars, boats and planes still creates emissions. That means that we’re still polluting the air and still contributing to climate change—albeit in a slightly greener world.