The growing need for alternative and renewable energy has spurred plenty of research into other sources than what the world is already using, one of which is algae. What are considered trash by some and food for certain marine species are believed to be a major source of fuel. After all, half of their weight is composed of lipid oil. Now all that needs to be done is to harvest, extract and convert them into a more suitable form of fuel.
Use of algae as fuel was first explored in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter. During these times, gas prices were shooting to the roof and lines at filling stations seem to have no end. In a bid to address the fuel crisis, the Aquatic Species Program that is run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted research of high-oil output algae. More than 3,000 types of algae were tested before any conclusion was made.
But as much as algae present a good energy source, they have their downfalls as well. Apparently the processes involved are complex, and even if the output is biofuel, these can still have environmental impacts.
List of Pros of Algae Biofuel
1. Abundant Resources
Some species of algae can double their number in just one day. They can be grown on various areas as well, whether natural or man-made. Although the process employed may be different, the fact that resources are abundant will make oil production one thing less to worry about. But the real highlight is that oil obtained is 30 times higher than what would normally be extracted from land crops. This is especially true if algae are commercially cultivated.
2. Beneficial to the Environment
Algae absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, which means that whatever CO2 is released will just be absorbed right back. Considering that massive amounts of CO2 are a major cause of global warming, growing algae will lessen the negative impact, more so when algae are used as fuel with little to no emissions. Moreover, they can be grown on wastewater, which enables the world to finally make good use of something that is often considered a lost cause.
What is even better is that, if biofuel spills do occur, there will be no significant and long-lasting adverse effects on the ecosystem. After all, it would be like throwing algae back into the water, except that they are in liquid form. Overall, algae biofuel is virtually harmless to the environment.
3. Produces Numerous Byproducts
During extraction and conversion, pet food, feed stock, fertilizer and even energy drinks will be produced. Such byproducts are not something you would normally find in other oil extraction process, whether in fracking or oil drilling. So not only do algae provide fuel, but other beneficial and useful products as well.
4. Provides Versatile Fuel Source
Unlike other forms of oil and gas, be it renewable or otherwise, algae biofuel will not only power cars, but also machines, other types of vehicles and jets. Yes, you read that right; jet fuel can be produced from algae. Furthermore, this biofuel can be used in cars, jets and other engines without the need to change or replace it. It basically works in an instant.
List of Cons of Algae Biofuel
1. Limited Information
In a 2009 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, entitled The Promise of Algae Biofuels, there were concerns over the need to properly assess algae biofuels, especially with the processes involved. There should be studies and analysis of the ecological issues that might come up across the various stages of production down to distribution.
Based on a framework mapped for “Potential and Existing Pathways for Algae Biofuel Production Draft”, commercial cultivation of algae is seen to have environmental ramifications, while harvesting, extracting and converting involve complex processes that may not have data that will serve as basis. Conversion through pyrolysis and hydroprocessing, for example, has been used in conventional biofuels, but not yet on algae.
Moreover, no actual data has been released about tests done on a car. Although a company used algae biofuel to power a Mercedes Benz E320 diesel in January 2008, no data about the kind of emission produced or the mileage has been disclosed.
2. Expensive Production Process
Compared to fossil fuels, creating algae biofuel may be cheaper as 10,000 gallons of oil per acre can be produced. Compared to oil from drilling, however, the entire process is very expensive, especially because research is still ongoing. Moreover, cultivating algae would need more maintenance and support that will require significant amounts of funds. Add to this the electrical equipment and transportation needed to move supply from one area to the next, the cost will certainly increase exponentially.
3. Risky and Complicated Process
Algae must be grown in natural conditions, which mean that they must be cultivated in an environment that they are accustomed to. This would require a setting with controlled conditions. Growing them in an open pond, for example, would require that the water must be in the exact temperature that the algae are used to. Depending on the size and the number of algae, there would also be a need to pump carbon dioxide into the ponds. Now what are the odds of CO2 escaping to the air and increasing the risk of contamination? Good thing there is a closed bioreactor system available to help counter this particular problem.
4. Poses a Risk to Animals
Algae must not be cultivated in areas where animals live, because the growth process is likely to be interrupted, causing some problems. Things could get even worse if animals would feed on the algae, because not only will the algae be in short supply, but also because the habitats, health and life of the animals would be put at risk. Unfortunately, this would mean extensive search on where algae is best grown, without causing a lot of damage or risks to anyone or anything.
Using algae as fuel is a promising concept, but more research has yet to be done. It might still be a long time for anyone to be reading about cars running on algae biofuel. For now, it would all be just about the production process, and the pros and cons of algae biofuel.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.