September 22, 2009

Algae fuel is cool: It’s viable, sustainable and scalable

It’s an economically viable fuel option—producing algae fuel is low in cost and can yield high returns. Not only are the two main inputs free (sunlight and carbon dioxide), the fuel source itself is not subject to political price fluctuations. It also appeals to fuel companies as a way to reduce carbon emissions, and would become even more popular if the U.S. were to implement a carbon cap-and-trade system. Once dried, algae as a fuel source is versatile—it can be burned like coal, liquefied to produce oil, or used in other ways to make plastics, foods, or nutraceuticals—occupying many of the same niches as corn and fossil fuel but in a more cost-efficient manner.

It’s actually sustainable—algae farming doesn’t require arable land or potable water to produce an abundance of energy (it grows in brackish waste or sea water), and the energy used to turn the algae into liquid fuel can be excess heat from a nearby power plant or from photo-bio-voltaic panels. Algae removes inorganic carbon dioxide—excesses of which cause global warming—from the air, eventually turning it into the organic carbon dioxide that powers our cars, trains and planes. Though there might not be a net loss of carbon dioxide in the process, by displacing fossil fuel and other fossil fuel-intensive bio-fuel sources, algae fuel would eliminate the introduction of new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It’s scalable—enough algae fuel can be produced to sustain our fuel-guzzling habits. The constraints common among other alternative fuel sources don’t affect algae farming: algae reproduces at a rapid rate, can be harvested, dried and turned into liquid fuel within a two-week period, and is a sustainable practice. Currently, algae is the only crop capable of being converted into biodiesel fuel to support the world’s current consumption rates.

Admittedly, there are some remaining glitches in the proposition of large-scale algae farming. It has been tried before and met with mixed results; however, the newest fuel-production method is both more energy efficient and less expensive. New techniques such as gravity and non-thermal drying have greatly improved the process of algae biofuel harvesting.

Both corn and soybeans use arable land and potable water, require longer growing seasons and rely on fertilizers made from fossil fuels or natural gas. Additionally, these other biofuel contenders take away from food that could otherwise be consumed. Compared with other available options, including fuel made from corn and soybeans—not to mention fossil fuels—algae biofuel seems to be the best option if the world’s current fuel and food consumption patterns continue at their current level or increase.

Cool, right?

No comments: