The benefits and downsides of producing biofuels from algae

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If we want to end our reliance on fossil fuels, then we will need alternative sources of energy. Some interesting alternatives include manure and human urine. These types of fuel are renewable, cheap, efficient, readily available, sustainable, and create far less environmental pollution than oil. Another attractive option is producing biofuels from algae, which also has many benefits, as well as various downsides.

But first, it’s worth asking: do we need alternatives because we’re running out of oil?

Well, according to BP, we’re far from running out of fossil fuels. David Eyton, BP head of technology, says that if you factor in other sources of energy – including nuclear, solar and wind – then there are enough resources to meet the world’s energy requirements 20 times over. This is because current technology can extract more oil and gas than ever before, which means that global reserves would almost double by 2050.

However, while we may not be running out of fossil fuels, this doesn’t mean we should continue to rely on them. They are the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With the global population expanding at an exponential rate, if we do not replace oil and gas with viable alternatives, then we will only exacerbate climate change. Which is why algae have been proposed as a biofuel.

 

Producing biofuels from algae

Algae grow all over the world, and under optimal conditions, it can be grown in huge quantities, in almost limitless amounts. Algae are half comprised of lipid oil, which scientists have been trying to convert into algae biodiesel. They are figuring out how to do so because biofuels from algae burn cleaner and more efficiently than petrol.

In June this year, gas giant ExxonMobil and biotech company Synthetic Genomics announced a “breakthrough”. Vijay Swarup, vice-president for research and development at ExxonMobil, said:

 

This key milestone in our advanced biofuels programme confirms our belief that algae can be incredibly productive as a renewable energy source without adverse impacts on climate, land and water.

 

Their findings were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. As the Financial Times reports:

 

The researchers identified a biological switch called ZnCys that regulates the conversion of carbon to oil in Nannochloropsis gaditana, an algal species that grow in seawater and is a leading candidate for biofuel production. Through genetic manipulation, they fine-tuned the process to double the proportion of lipid (oil) in the algal biomass.

 

Scientists have previously attempted to increase the concentration of oil in algae, but these efforts failed because cells stopped growing when the quantity of lipid oil was increased. However, by using this genetic process, the researchers were able to maintain cell growth until 40% of the algae’s biomass was made up of lipid, which is enough to make it a viable source of energy.

Algae biofuels have been researched since the 70s. But it has proved to be very difficult to develop a fast-growing strain of algae with high oil content. So this more recent research offers some hope for a potentially booming algae biofuels industry.

The technology still has to be refined before it can be used in a commercial context. Also, there are several disadvantages to producing biofuels from algae.

 

Downsides

Some of the problems with algae biofuels include high water usage, which is a precious resource being increasingly depleted. In addition, producing biofuels from algae requires large amounts of fertilizer, which has polluting potential; it is highly expensive to produce algae biofuels, and its production emits captured CO2.

Nonetheless, if the technology can be refined to make algae biofuels commercially viable – and if its production can somehow be made more sustainable – then perhaps we can embrace it as an alternative to fossil fuels.

 

About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs.

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