VIEWS: Can Algae Help Meet our Fuel Demands?

Dispatch from SSC Intern Lila Holzman

The city of San Diego, California certainly seems to think so.  Also known as “biotech beach,” San Diego has become a key center for research related to algae’s potential fuel contribution.  Its location near the ocean and its history with biotech business and its clean-energy investors have enabled the presence of 200 biotech companies in the area, employing 300 people in algae research. 

‘Nature’s solar panels’ soak up carbon dioxide and sunlight, and use photosynthesis to convert them to oil. One of the advantages of algae is the fact that it can be harvested more frequently and at a greater yield than other potential biofuel crop such as soybean or grass.  Additionally, it can survive in salty, polluted water or even in the desert, freeing up agricultural space. 

Yet many doubt its viability as a worthwhile fuel source. Some say it is too costly to grow significant amounts of algae and that its fuel is too expensive to extract. Currently oil derived from algae costs between $20 and $60 per gallon, which is clearly no match for conventional gasoline at $5 per gallon. 

The issue is one of scaling. Translating lab work to industrial scale production may require enormous pools of photo bio-reactors compared to a relatively small amount of algae.  Technologies must be developed to allow a more efficient extraction of oil from algae organisms. 

But with the funding from such companies as Exxon Mobil Corp and the Defense Department, researchers are optimistic that algae will indeed play a significant role in meeting our energy demand. In 2008 the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology was launched to serve as a consortium to unite and enhance algae research in the area.  During October San Diego will host the 2009 Algae Biomass Summit to further bring together researchers on the subject. 

Success stories include algae-generated fuel being tested in airplanes. It may be further used by NASA and the Navy. San Diego based Sapphire Energy has introduced the Algaeus plug-in hybrid that runs on algae-based renewable gasoline. 

Such research is not brand new. It was popular prior to the 1990s, when oil prices dropped along with funding for algae research. But it is now making a comeback as the energy sector strives for new, renewable sources. Other potential uses of algae include antibacterial products, foams for windmill blades, feed for fish or livestock, and maybe even cancer therapies. 

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