Algae 'key to energy problems'

 

Pond scum could become the fuel of the future, producing oils for use in transport.

This not very glamorous organism also has the added benefit of being edible, providing useful protein and carbohydrate for those with an inclination to try some.

The wonders of algae were discussed yesterday during a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in San Diego entitled Algae for Food, Feed,Fibre, Freshwater and Fuel.

The speakers argued that all this was available from what most of us recognise as the green slimy stuff growing in rivers, ponds and lakes.

The great problems facing the world today were energy, water and food, stated Dr Michael Webber of the University of Texas, Austin. “You could solve all of these problems in one step with algae if you do it in the right way.”

Algae naturally produces fats as it grows, lipids that can be extracted and turned into a biofuel, he said. Unlike biofuel sources such as corn or beans however, algae does not require quality agricultural land, it can be grown in ponds built on marginal lands.

Nor is water an issue, the session heard. Algae comes in many forms and some grow readily in foul , salty or brackish waters. Algae could be grown in waste water for fuel, but would deliver the added benefit of helping to clean up the water in the process.

The US government funded algae to energy technology back in the 1970s after an oil crisis but funding stopped in the mid-1990s, stated Al Darzins, group manager of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Now however they were back in the game.

President Barack Obama signed a bill in 2007 designed to reduce oil imports and carbon dioxide emissions and algal biofuel could make a contribution to that, Mr Darzins said.

Dr Robert Hebner of the University of Texas described his efforts to demonstrate “can we make [a biofuel] at a price that is affordable” and apparently the answer is yes.

“The good news is it does look like we are achieving our price target,” he said. When everything was working at its best his system could produce algal biofuel at three dollars a US gallon (about 55 eurocent per litre). “We have it down to prices that are very, very good.”

Meanwhile, we could find algae appearing as a food ingredient soon as the potential of this natural product is developed. It could also serve as a useful source of fibre, or be reduced for use as a natural fertilizer or given to animals as feed.