Algae: The Future of Biofuels?
While biofuel energy methods that use corn and soybeans may be a step ahead at the moment, generating energy from algae may provide a more efficient alternative in the long run. At least, some companies - such as Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation in New Zealand - are hoping so.
The company says that the green pond scum could generate 30 times more energy per acre of land than other biofuels, and grow at a much faster rate.
In May 2006, Aquaflow demonstrated the first production of biodiesel crude oil from wild algae. Last year, they drove a car powered with fuel from algae. The company, which has patented the extraction process, wants to be "the first company in the world to economically produce biofuel from wild algae harvested from open-air environments, to market it, and meet the challenge of increasing demand."
Algae thrive in shallow dirty water, and grow easily and quickly. According to Nick Gerritsen of Aquaflow, algae can double their mass in hours. Other biofuel sources - such as corn, soy beans, rapeseed and sugar cane - take much more time and space to grow, and critics worry that using food for energy could have a negative impact on the food industry.
Algae naturally contain lipids and oils, and these byproducts can be strained from the algae with a cultivation system, such as a photobioreactor. The remaining water could be left clean enough to drink, according to Aquaflow. Algae grow in a variety of climates, and researchers are looking for the best algae types and cultivation methods for different locations.
Algae would also be a clean source of fuel, since it consumes CO2, like all plants. Plus, Aquaflow says the technology is cheap enough to be adopted anywhere, and hopes to enable communities to use their wild algae to become self-sufficient.
Experts predict that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, algae farms would require 15,000 square miles of land - a bit more than the state of Maryland.
Even some major companies have recently been getting into the algae oil business. In December 2007, Shell and HR Biopetroleum formed a joint venture to build a demonstration plant to harvest algae they claim can double their mass several times a day. Boeing is also looking into using biofuels including algae as a fuel source, and the company plans to fly a biofuel-propelled 747 later in 2008.