December 19, 2011

Is Algae-based Biofuel an Energy Game Changer?

Algae is one surprising potential energy source that is showing great promise. It has gained recent media attention as the U.S Navy has announced plans to test the use of algae biofuel in one of its cargo ships. Unlike oil which is only found in underground deposits in certain parts of the world, algae grows in abundance all over the globe. Approximately half of algae’s weight is comprised of lipid oil can be converted into biodiesel. Biodiesel burns more cleanly and efficiently than petroleum.

Alternative fuel sources must be perfected and made cost effective in the coming years if we are to offset the ever-increasing price of gasoline and electricity generated from fossil fuel sources. We have become accustomed to electricity rates that are very low compared to what they may become as fossil fuels continue to deplete. It is critical that we find cost-effective and economically viable alternatives.

Unlike oil, algae are renewable and ubiquitous. Algae grow almost any place on earth. Pond scum, the most prominent of all the varieties of algae is the form best suited to develop biodiesel. Unlike other forms of crop-based fuel production algae does not reduce food supply. In fact, algae byproducts that are not converted to fuel can be made into fertilizer.

Many large corporations are coming around to the possibility of large-scale energy production from algae. In fact, currently private sector research is taking place on a larger scale than government or university funded research. There's growing pressure to focus more public funds into research of this potentially game-changing technology. Many people feel passionately that algae is the key to changing our energy mix away from fossil fuel and that algae could produce most of our electricity and fuel our vehicles if only more funding and effort is put into the research needed to perfect the technologies for processing algae into fuel.

Algae vs. Oil

Despite the large amount of interest from the private energy sector compared to the public sector skeptics maintained that oil companies will not easily allow oil to be usurped as the energy source of choice for the worlds energy needs. Despite the global economic slowdown that began in 2008 oil prices have remained stubbornly resilient. If supply continues to decline oil prices have nowhere to go but up. The world's energy needs will not go down absent some kind of global economic calamity. This means oil companies will always be able to find willing buyers for oil even as prices climb.

Many people vilify fossil fuels. It's true that they have had a damaging impact on the environment as well as social harmony. However the fact remains that ever since the first ox was yoked by a man society has relied on some source of energy other than our own bodies to sustain us. As the industrial revolution took hold fossil fuels met that need for energy and helped fuel and amazing century of human achievement. However, the world’s fossil fuel reserves were a onetime endowment. They don't replenish themselves on a practical timescale. Renewable energy sources such as algae will not be an optional energy choice forever.

Geopolitical Implications of a Shift in Energy Production

The current word political and power structures is driven in large part by the need to produce and trade in fossil energy. This means that algae energy technology has the potential to be disruptive in the short term yet stabilizing in the long-run. Entire nation's credit their political standing and wealth in very large part to the oil found within their borders. Algae, by contrast to fossil fuels, can be grown and refined into electricity and other energy by essentially any nation on earth. That shift in political and economic power structure on a global scale would be seismic. However, in a world where almost every nation on earth is energy independent a major cause of political and economic strife would be removed from the world dynamic.

Today's model of extracting fuel from one place in the globe and shipping it thousands of miles across oceans could be transformed to one of local production of algae to produce electricity and transportation fuel. This would mean more jobs in places where economic opportunity may be lacking today.

If scientists are able to transition the technology of algae to biofuel from the lab to full scale, real world production impact could be far-reaching.

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