Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck
Algae: Could a Primeval Plant Become a Future Fuel, Food, and Bio-Plastic?
By Mark Sommer *
Algae are rapidly gaining traction in the private sector and academia as their potential becomes clear.
TRINIDAD, California, United States, Apr 25 (Tierramérica).- At a time when most conventional fuels cast ever longer shadows of unintended consequences, algae - that lowly pond scum - offer a near-term, low-tech alternative with apparently few of the hidden costs of more elaborate, expensive and exploitive energy sources.
The first, simplest, and fastest-growing life form, algae hold unheralded promise to become a pivotal resource for the planet's future as the basis for a high quality biodiesel that doesn't (like corn) siphon food from humans.
And it’s not just a fuel. It’s animal feed, human food (think spirulina), and the building block for a wide range of biodegradable bio-plastics to replace petroleum-based plastics. And algae do all this as it grows by absorbing prodigious amounts of CO2, the very greenhouse gas we most urgently need to reduce.
At the moment algae ire not a high priority on most national or major corporate energy research and development agendas, but they are rapidly gaining traction in the private sector and academia as their potential becomes clear.
In some cases it is being researched by giant energy conglomerates as a byproduct of the development of so-called “clean coal,” since it effectively absorbs the CO2 generated by the burning of carbon. But coal is nothing but 500 million-year-old algae.
So, ask some algae advocates, why not just stop strip-mining and mountaintop removal, leave the coal in the ground and instead farm fast-growing, CO2-absorbing algae?
This is not a distant dream. One fact that sets algae apart from just about every other energy option, conventional or alternative, is its simplicity, ubiquity, and near-term availability.
Algae researchers say that while technical obstacles remain to be resolved before they can achieve cost-effective large-scale production for its many uses, none appear to be insurmountable.
With its prodigious growth habit, algae under cultivation do need to be carefully controlled. Algal blooms occur naturally, but they are also triggered by chemical and agricultural pollution.
Eutrophication chokes waterways and harms marine and aquatic life, blocking the essential flow of oxygen in a process known as hypoxia. It’s a serious problem and must be considered when designing algae farms in the open rather than in the controlled environments of bio-digesters, as most biodiesel is currently produced.
But unlike a nuclear chain reaction, even if allowed to bloom excessively, algae will inflict consequences nowhere near those of a nuclear meltdown.
On a recent visit to ENN Group, a fast-growing Chinese energy company based an hour from Beijing, this correspondent was given a tour of a laboratory where a team of scientists is developing micro-algae for a variety of uses. It’s part of a joint venture between ENN and Duke Energy, one of the largest U.S. public utilities.
Standing in a sunlit greenhouse filled with walls of clear glass tubing through which green sludge circulates, Liu Minsung, the young, energetic director of ENN’s algae team, gestured to a row of transparent vials of varying color and consistency.
He lifted them one by one. “This,” he said, “is micro-algae in its pure form. We’re experimenting with different forms of micro-algae and breeding new varieties to develop those easiest to adapt to our purposes.”
Then he lifted the next vial. “This is vegetable oil - very pure, no flavor of its own, very good for you.” He put the vial down and lifted the next. “This is animal feed. Very nutritious.”
“This is biodiesel,” Mr. Liu continued. “It can be used to fuel everything from motor vehicles to ships and jets.” “Oilgae,” as some have called it, is refined through an inexpensive, long-established process - mid-tech, not high tech.
Mr. Liu moved on. “And this is the basis for bioplastics. Could replace all the plastic we make out of petroleum today.” And it’s biodegradable.
“How many years will it take till all this becomes commercially viable?,” I asked. He thought for a moment, as if consulting his calendar. “Check back with us next year.”
Next year, indeed. In 2012, the U.S. Navy will launch what it calls a Green Strike Group, a flotilla of ships powered by a 50 percent algae-based and 50 percent NATO F-76 fuel, forming a 50/50 blend of hydro-processed renewable diesel.
By 2016, the Navy plans to launch a Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group composed of hybrid electric ships and aircraft propelled by biofuels including algae, and - not so green - nuclear-powered vessels.
Algae are a full circle innovation because they serve many uses at once. Technological solutions have grown so complicated and costly that, as with not-so-smart phones, a surfeit of inessential features ends up defeating their core capabilities.
Algae are ancient but far from primitive. In fact, they have had about five billion years to evolve into a lean green growing being.
Like every other “solution” that’s ever been devised, algae undoubtedly have shadow sides that have yet to be discovered. But the greatest danger they pose is that, like the electric car, they won’t developed.
But one great virtue of algae is that you can grow your own. Algae grow most everywhere other than the Arctic. If researchers focus on scaling down as well as up, local communities could grow their own municipal algae farms and farmers could cultivate algae for new sources of income and fuel to power their own equipment.
Life on earth began with algae, and if life is found on distant orbs it will likely be algae we find there first. Will this simplest, wisest life form help rescue us from our energy dilemma?
* * Mark Sommer is host of the internationally syndicated radio program, A World of Possibilities (http://www.aworldofpossibilities.org). Copyright IPS