Marine algae most promising bet for green fuel

January 5th, 2009 - 12:46 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 5 (IANS) Scientists see marine algae as the most promising bet for a green fuel that would help ease the dependence on fossil fuel and power vehicles of the future.Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of Californa San Diego (UCSD), scientists along with their counterparts from its division of biological sciences are part of an emerging algal biofuel consortium that includes academic collaborators, CleanTECH, public and private partners.

Scripps biologist Greg Mitchell is quick to point out to anyone who asks that marine algae are the most efficient organisms on earth for absorbing light energy and converting it into a natural biomass oil product, the biofuel equivalent of crude oil.

“Algae yields five to 10 times more bioenergy molecules per area, per time, than any terrestrial plant,” said Mitchell, a native of oil-rich Houston, Texas. “Nothing else comes close.”

From a sustainability perspective, algae hold the upper hand against other biofuel candidates, such as corn and soybeans. Algae can be grown on barren desert land using salt water, averting competition with agricultural cropland and the need for large amounts of precious fresh water for irrigation.

Since they require carbon dioxide for growth, algae are inherently carbon neutral, and they can suck up carbon dioxide directly from industrial pollution sources. Furthermore, algae can feed off the nutrients in discarded wastewater. Adding yet another layer to their allure, the rich protein left over from algae harvests can be converted to animal feed.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but algal-derived biofuels have the potential to become a major source of transportation fuel,” said Bernard Raemy, executive vice president of Carbon Capture Corporation, a company growing algae in ponds for biofuel research in California’s Imperial Valley desert.

Raemy acknowledges that a string of challenges lies ahead, but with appropriate investment he believes a new algal biofuel industry, based on collaborations with public and private sectors, could be built within 10 years.

The prospect of squeezing billions of gallons of biofuel oil from marine algae is enticing, but to transform tiny lime-green-coloured plant-like organisms into a viable and realistic fuel option, they must be tested and grown on a massive scale.

Intermediate-sized, and eventually immense, algae production sites will be required to produce an economically relevant quantity of algae-based oil for biodiesel fuel in cars, trucks, and airplanes.

Such facilities are beginning to emerge, featuring farms with vast oval-shaped ponds capable of churning out hundreds of pounds of algal biomass per day, said a Scirpps release.

But these facilities are in their formative stages and face an array of problems, from selecting which species of algae are the best candidates for biofuel output to addressing the threat of airborne contaminants that invade algae ponds and disrupt growth processes.

In 2005, as gas prices continued to rise and long-term oil supplies grew increasingly suspect, interest in algal biofuel research began to stir and society began to awaken on a large scale to the issues of fossil fuel emissions and a warming planet.

Mitchell, who spent years promoting algal biofuel but was largely dismissed, jumped in with zeal. He began organising seminars and meetings on the topic, in addition to coordinating efforts with national and international algal biofuel stakeholders.

Mitchell’s lab began evaluating various species of algae for their biofuel potential. Today, the lab is evaluating diverse algal growth scenarios and resultant biological models, or test cases, which could be applied in algal pond farms.

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