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Maria Ramos

Maria Ramos

Maria is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago…

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Could This Be The Next Great Renewable Energy Source?

Could This Be The Next Great Renewable Energy Source?

Worldwide oil prices are subject to quite a bit of volatility and are often affected by political disputes and controversies. When we consider these facts, in conjunction with the amount of pollution generated by burning petroleum products for fuel, it's no surprise that scientists and governments are trying to explore alternative forms of energy. One of the newest, and seemingly most viable forms of clean energy, could be poised to outperform all of the existing options, including solar: algae biofuel.

Algae are found throughout the Earth's oceans, where they employ photosynthetic processes to create energy using sunlight. Some types of algae produce oils that they use to store energy, which means that certain algae can be grown and then harvested to produce biofuel: a net carbon-neutral process.

Although other crops, such as corn and soybeans, have been used to produce biofuel in the past, algae offer several advantages over them. According to the US Department of Energy, algae yields are between 10 and 100 times as high as those of traditional biofuels. What's more, algae can grow in marginal or brackish agricultural areas, meaning that production can be ramped up significantly without competing with food crops for land and other resources. Related: Better Times Ahead For Oil, If You Can Believe It

The global market for biofuel was estimated at about $100 billion in 2013. Many believe that the size of this market could almost double within the next few decades. According to scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, it would take a land area three times the size of the United States to replace all the fuel used in transportation in the U.S. with corn-derived biofuel. By contrast, it would only take an area the size of Maryland to do so using algae.

The U.S. Department of Energy is pouring money into efforts to promote the viability and efficiency of using algae as a fuel. It has announced $18 million in funding towards this end, and Just Energy in Ohio has pushed for more state level funding for research into methods to more efficiently grow, process and extract the oils from algae. Efforts are underway throughout many other countries as well.

Researchers in the Netherlands are experimenting with growing multiple species of algae together to achieve synergies that aren't possible with monocultures. Australia saw its first testing of a commercial algae fuel production facility last year in Whyalla. Canadian researchers have used specially grown algae to actively clean up oil sands. In Sweden, chemical company Perstorp is trying out different growing conditions and algae species to identify ones that show potential as biofuel. Related: China Provides Another Threat To Oil Prices

Algae has already been used successfully in a number of commercial areas. In 2011, United Airlines ran the first passenger flight powered solely by algae products. In Hamburg, Germany, a unique residential structure, called the “BIQ House,” uses bioreactors filled with algae to generate heat and biomass without requiring any electricity to be added from outside the system. The success of these trial projects as well as the support of big names like Craig Venter and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe might well serve to propel algae-based fuel solutions even further.

What's holding algae back from wider mainstream adoption is price. Estimates from the Biofuels Digest in late 2014 suggest that the price of algae biofuel is around $7.50 per gallon. Although the price of gasoline and other fuels changes quite frequently, it tends to be much less than this figure. Experts believe that algae fuels must reach around $3 per gallon to be able to successfully compete with oil-based products.

It's hard to speculate on whether algae or any other type of biofuel could completely displace oil.

If any of them could do it, it would most likely be algae, assuming that it can someday be produced at competitive prices. The arable land requirements of other types of biofuel made from food crops place a hard limit on the amount of fuel that could be sourced in this way, and we must also consider the effect on food prices as more farmland is devoted to the production of fuel. Related: Saudi Oil Strategy: Brilliant Or Suicide?

A Florida-based company called Algenol has an ambitious target of producing several types of fuel using algae at $1.30 per gallon. This company's processes actually consume salt water and generate freshwater, a useful byproduct of its production model. Tokyo-based Euglena, named after a species of algae, received a special Prime Minister's Award for its work producing foodstuffs, cosmetics and fuel from algae.

Craig Venter's company Synthetic Genomics is active in efforts to use genetic manipulation of algae to increase fuel production, reduce atmospheric CO2 and grow food for human consumption. What all these companies have in common with each other and with many other algae firms is the fact that they're trying to create other usable products while at the same time generating fuels.

Now that there's serious interest and investment in algae-derived fuels, it's highly likely that advancing technology will be able to reduce prices to a level necessary for market success. If this occurs, we could see algae having a greater impact on sustainability, carbon dioxide reduction and clean energy generation than wind, solar and hydroelectric combined.

By Maria Ramos for Oilprice.com

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  • A Concerned Taxpayer on August 13 2015 said:
    US taxpayers have spent over $2.5 billion on algae research at universities for the last 60 years. WHERE ARE THE PROMISED ALGAE FUELS?

    The claim that the US government wants to reduce dependency on foreign oil has been misleading to US taxpayers and to the emerging algae fuel industry. Getting off foreign oil has been the rallying cry for the last decade, and billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to develop technologies that will accomplish that goal. So, Washington, where are the promised algae fuels?

    We have witnessed grant recipients, researchers and lobbyists change their
    missions as the grant wind blows.The latest mission is to pressure the
    government to change the renewable fuels standards, not to pressure grant
    recipients to produce the oil they’ve claim they’ve allegedly proven they can
    produce. But the fact is that the technologies that have been paid for by US
    taxpayer dollars are being sold to foreign countries by the very same companies that used taxpayer dollars to develop them.

    This situation has become a total victory for the favored few algae research grant recipients who received federal money based on grant applications containing less than truthful information, the researchers and Department of Energy Biomass Program employees who’ve made an entire career out of the
    buffoonery, and for the companies who received US government money to
    develop the technologies and foreign money to put them into operation.

    Taxpayers are tired of hearing that algae fuels are still being researched or in
    pilot stage. Researchers claim they have established industrial standards that
    have never been used for commercial algae production for fuels in the US.
    Where are all the non-research US jobs that were supposed to be created?

    In a nutshell, the American taxpayer has paid for the technologies, and will pay
    foreign countries for the oil.It seems that we could have saved billions of dollars by not ever pursuing alternative fuel technologies. Let the other countries spend their money commercialization and deployment of our algae technologies while and the US will purchase our fuel from them.

    Maybe we should have spent the money teaching morals and ethics to our leaders, change legislation to prohibit lobbying, and pay lawyers to pursue those who have financially benefited from the debacle.
  • Chuck on August 14 2015 said:
    "to create energy using sunlight."

    In other words, this should work terrifically in southern California and Florida.

    No, wait.

    I'm currently living just south of Miami, and today is rainy and cloudy. But tomorrow is expected to be sunny again, so perhaps the next great source of renewable energy will work then.

    As we say in the solar biz, one can only hope.
  • Dr.Kris on July 05 2016 said:
    Thank you for your article. I'm seeing corn and soybeans tank today because of something that I think is outside of the normal crop conditions. Perhaps an enhancement to the algae growing concept? Or maybe something else.

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