A slippery, slimy organism with a natural ability to grow rapidly is gaining respect among researchers who hope to one day harness its potential in mass amounts for the creation of bio-fuels.
Algae, which have the ability to grow in both fresh water and saltwater, could one day provide fuel for the world’s cars, diesel trucks and military jets. While other sources of alternative energy rely on food sources such as corn, researchers have envisioned growing algae in open ponds in the desert.
By starving the algae of their nutrients, scientists have discovered ways of harnessing their algal oils. The oils are then converted into vegetable oil to produce fuel.
Researchers at UC San Diego, who are studying ways to genetically modify the algae, say the organism could one day solve the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“The only real solution we can see that answers economics, geopolitical issues and the environment is this algae platform,” said Steve Kay, dean of UCSD’s Division of Biological Sciences. “And it’s an area of research and biological science that has been almost entirely ignored.”
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the principal research lab for the U.S. Department of Energy, began studying algae-derived bio-fuels 30 years ago. It halted the project in 1996 largely because the price of algal oil couldn’t compete with the petroleum prices.
But today’s rising oil costs, coupled with an uproar about the use of food supplies for energy use, have re-emphasized the need for alternative solutions.
Thousands Of Gallons Per Acre
While ethanol crops such as corn can produce anywhere between 28 and 700 gallons per acre, scientists with UCSD say algae have the ability to yield a few thousand gallons an acre.
“And that’s just the starting point,” Kay said.
But challenges exist with the production of bio-fuel on a larger scale, and scientists say there are debates about acceptable prices.
“One of the real problems right now is that there is no national or international center for science and engineering of photosynthetic microbes,” said Steven Briggs, a biological sciences professor at UCSD. “It’s been a backwater of science and now, suddenly, it looks like it’s the key to our most pressing social challenge.”
Venture capital dollars, which amounted to almost $4 billion in green technologies last year, have created greater opportunities for bio-fuel startups in recent years. The $4 billion represented a 38 percent increase from the $2.9 billion invested in 2006, according to Cleantech Group LLC, formerly called the Cleantech Venture Network, which tracks venture capital investments in environmentally friendly technologies.