Out of all the clean energy options in development, it is algae-based biofuel that most closely resembles the composition of the crude oil that gets pumped out from beneath the sea bed. Much of what we know as petroleum was, after all, formed from these very microorganisms, through a natural heat-facilitated conversion that played out over the course of millions of years.
Now, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, have discovered a way to not only replicate, but speed up this “cooking” process to the point where a small mixture of algae and water can be turned into a kind of crude oil in less than an hour. Besides being readily able to be refined into burnable gases like jet fuel, gasoline or diesel, the proprietary technology also generates, as a byproduct, chemical elements and minerals that can be used to produce electricity, natural gas and even fertilizer to, perhaps, grow even more algae. It could also help usher in algae as a viable alternative; an analysis has shown that implementing this technique on a wider scale may allow companies to sell biofuel commercially for as low as two dollars a gallon.
“When it comes down to it, Americans aren’t like Europeans who tend to care more about reducing their carbon footprint,” says lead investigator Douglas C. Elliott, who’s researched alternative fuels for 40 years. “The driving force for adopting any kind of fuel is ultimately whether it’s as cheap as the gasoline we’re using now.”
Scientists have long been intrigued by the laundry list of inherent advantages algae boasts over other energy sources. The U.S. Department of Energy, for instance, estimates that scaling up algae fuel production to meet the country’s day-to-day oil consumption would take up about 15,000 square miles of land, roughly the size of a small state like Maryland. In comparison, replacing just the supply of diesel produced with bio-diesel from soybeans would require setting aside half of the nation’s land mass.
Besides the potential for much higher yields, algae fuel is still cleaner than petroleum, as the marine plants devour carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Agriculturally, algae flourishes in a a wide range of habitats, from ocean territories to wastewater environment. It isn’t hazardous like nuclear fuel, and it is biodegradable, unlike solar panels and other mechanical interventions. It also doesn’t compete with food supplies and, again, is similar enough to petrol that it can be refined just the same using existing facilities.
“Ethanol from corn needs to be blended with gas and modified vegetable oil for use with diesel,” says Elliott. “But what we’re making here in converting algae is more of a direct route that doesn’t need special handling or blending.”
Or, as algae researcher Juergen Polle of Brooklyn College puts it: “We cannot fly planes with ethanol. We need oil,” he tells CBS News.
But while the infrastructure for corn-based ethanol production has expanded to the extent that most cars on the road run on gasoline blends comprised of 10 percent biofuel, the ongoing development of algae fuel has progressed ever-so glacially since the initial spark of interest in the 1980s. Industry experts attribute this languishing to the lack of a feasible method for producing algae fuel running as high as 10 dollars a gallon, according to a report in the New York Times.
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