It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Pond Scum to the Rescue!
That’s right, pond scum – better known as algae. It takes over waterways everywhere and in many forms or disguises; seaweed, kelp, that underwater moss that you can easily slip on (lichens), and so many more. It forms symbiotic relationships with coral and sea sponges and has a multitude of uses, including the ability to reduce CO2 emissions. And people are just starting to realize its real, full potential.
Universities and companies across the country are getting involved in algae research projects. ExxonMobil claimed it would donate $600 million into the research through a partnership with a California biotechnology company. Considering the amount of oil spill damage Exxon has been responsible for over the years, it certainly is the very least they could do.
Scientists are hoping to create a cost-effective way to convert lipids from algae sources into fuel. Sapphire Energy—a company based out of California—already fueled a road trip with a type of algae gasoline. Another California is also looking to create algae oil – except they will be processing it from fish fattened on the algae.
Algae also has an extreme hunger for CO2, so much that it now produces 66%-75% of our oxygen. Unfortunately, this is due to the mass deforestation of trees. According to chemical engineer George Philippidis of the International University in Miami, Florida, “we could hook up to the exhaust of polluting industries. We could capture it and feed it to algae and prevent that CO2 from contributing to further climate change.”
The Midwest Research Institute began studying algae as an energy source several years ago. What they discovered is, even though algae grows like mad (and is not exactly in short supply), it costs up to $100 to make one gallon of algal fuel. In order to bring that price down, scientists need to find a cheap way to dry the algae and extract the energy-storing lipids. It is currently hoped that production costs will be brought down to approximately $40 per gallon within 5 years.
Paul Woods, chief executive of Florida-based Algenol Biofuels, has an entirely different method on his mind. Rather than drying the algae, he has developed a process for “sweating” ethanol from the algae. This past summer, he also announced a partnership with Dow Chemical to build a demonstration plant and plans to launch actual production by 2011.
“We see ourselves as a very cheap way to supplement [energy supply], and the cheaper the ethanol we have, the more we’re winning in efforts to have independence from foreign fuel,” Woods said.
Right now, it is more probable that algae will be turned into some chemical use, such as a fertilizer, or perhaps a cleaning product. The potential of creating an affordable (and useable) algal fuel is there, though it’s been talked about for decades and people have yet to see decent results. If algae can be harnessed as a fuel, energy source or for other purposes, that really would be a great thing to see, especially if it can replace the use of fossil fuels. However, we always seem to find a way to make plentiful resources deplete rather quickly. I’m sure even with the current bountiful global supply of algae, we will still find a way to push yet another resource to the brink of extinction, unless people are a lot more careful this time around.
By Heidi Marshall