Over the years of producing podcasts and writing articles, I have talked many times about algae and its benefits as a fuel source. The most commonly discussed biofuel in the media is ethanol produced from corn because of the dilemma of using lots of water to turn a food source into a fuel to power vehicles, causing much debate.
One other source of biofuel is algae. This plant is actually quite a useful source – it can soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into a biofuel thus reducing greenhouse gases and providing a green power source. This isn’t a new concept – 100s of millions of years ago, algae grew in vast quantities thanks to a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. As the atmosphere changed, the algae died and was buried under layers of dust that became rock. The ensuing pressure over millions of years converted the dead algae into oil.
Algae are one of the fastest growing plants on the planet and they thrive on carbon dioxide so some companies are using them in exhaust systems at factories. Scientists reckon that one gallon of algae based fuel will remove 13-14 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The plants remove the pollutants and collect this as energy in the form of carbohydrates. The carbs can be processed to create bio fuels and the waste from this process can be turned into animal feeds. So the process is simple: Algae need water and carbon dioxide as food sources and they use sunlight as their own fuel to convert the ingredients into a biofuel!
There are several major benefits from developing biofuels from algae. The first is that we are not using a food source to make the fuel. Secondly, because algae can live in dirty water, we are not consuming vast quantities of drinking water. Thirdly, algae consumes greenhouses gases, thus making the Earth a better place to live. The fourth benefit is that the refinery to convert the algae oil into a biofuel uses much less energy to produce the fuel and finally algae can produce more biofuel per acre than its competitors – and faster!
All the benefits above knock out corn based ethanol as a source of fuel, which will put a strain on the Earth if we continue to allow Governments to promote this as a source. Farmers would benefit more financially (with less tax-payer subsidies) by developing algae “plants” – cellulose and refining ones!
The logistics of delivering the fuel can be greatly reduced compared to hydrocarbon and ethanol based fuels simply by developing local refining plants, typically near any industrial factories or farms. The need to transport over long distances can be removed altogether.
We hear a lot about the concept of carbon capture and sequestration – especially in Australia where the politicians see it as a cash cow by selling underground space in the deserts and lowly populated areas. Algae completely removes the need for the storage area because it can consume the captured carbon dioxide as it arrives – sure you might need holding tanks, but think of it, you could have vast areas of algae cultivation that are not offensive to the eye and local algae refineries that produce no pollution – especially if the fuel is piped to local businesses for consumption.
Algae could even be burnt to produce electricity for the growing numbers of electric cars on our roads. Now that would be the best solution, providing a positive impact whilst driving!