One of the planet’s simplest organisms — algae — may play a significant role in our work to create solutions to global warming. High oil-producing algae can be used to make biodiesel and, at the same time, provide a means for recycling waste carbon from fossil fuel combustion.
To learn more, I recently attended a conference, “Algae-to-Energy Research & Development in the South,” in St. Louis, Missouri. The conference, hosted by Southeast Agriculture & Forestry Energy Resource Alliance (SAFER) and the Center for Evergreen Energy, offered informative details about algae-to-energy research projects and initiatives happening in the Southeast. Several start-up companies such as Algenol Biofuels, Aurora Biofuels, PetroAlgae, are located in the region.
A recent report on algae released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Cultivating Clean Energy: The Promise of Algae Biofuels,” said: “A growing number of entrepreneurs, investors, academics and policy makers are working to make algae-derived gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel a reality. The economic, national security, and environmental costs of our dependence on oil become more clear every day. If developed sustainably, the algae biofuel industry may be able to provide large quantities of biofuels with potentially minimal environmental impacts.”
The NRDC paper contrasted a more gloomy assessment of algae in an article published in Mother Jones’ September/October issue titled, “Scum Artists: the false promise of algae-fuel companies.” The article suggests that some algae companies have promised their investors impossible amounts of oil from algae.
With the corn ethanol backlash still going strong, money has been pouring into algal biodiesel. In July, oil giant Exxon Mobil announced plans to make an investment of $600 million in producing liquid transportation fuels from algae. Bill Gates’ investment firm is funding Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based pioneer in an entirely new industry of “green crude production” for high-octane fuels such as algae-based diesel and jet fuel that can be used within existing infrastructure (pipelines, refineries, airplanes, cars, etc).”
The commercial potential of the algae-to-energy industry remains uncertain, yet increased investment and the rapid development of technology certainly creates an interest in the role of algae in combating climate change. In order to grow, algae mainly need land, sunlight, water, and carbon. The Southeast region has the resources necessary to grow algae and abundant access to CO2 sources: coal-fired power plants.
Overshadowed by a multibillion-dollar push into other clean coal technologies, a handful of companies are testing the potential for algae to grow at power plants across the nation. Carbon-rich smokestack emissions can be diverted directly into algae growing ponds, feeding the algae while keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. The algae is then harvested, dried and can be used to produce biofuel for transportation. At the end of the day, there are still CO2 emissions, but the CO2 will have been recycled and displaced nonrenewable forms of carbon.
Overall, SACE staff are closely monitoring the development of algae-to-energy technology and will offer updates and post related information here on our blog. We believe there is significant potential for producing clean energy from algae, yet we must be certain it is grown and harvested in a sustainable way.