Jan
25
2010

Biofuels suffer green envy?

Electric cars, hydrogen cars… algae cars? Scientists and policy makers are researching ways to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions associated with automobile use. One promising fossil-fuel alternative may be a biofuel made from algae.

Some varieties of algae are as much as 50% lipids (oil). This oil can be removed from the algae and converted into biofuel in a way that is similar to how vegetable oil is converted into biodiesel. Compared to other biofuel crops, such as corn and soybeans, algae require less space and grow 10 to 20 times faster. What sets algae apart even more is that they can help us remove certain pollutants from the water.
Could we put algae to work in the Twin Cities?: There are a lot of renewable energy sources being explored right now and many questions to ask of them. We need to consider all of the energy and natural resources that go into producing and delivering renewable energy. For example, what renewable energy would be the easiest to deliver to the Twin Cities?
Could we put algae to work in the Twin Cities?: There are a lot of renewable energy sources being explored right now and many questions to ask of them. We need to consider all of the energy and natural resources that go into producing and delivering renewable energy. For example, what renewable energy would be the easiest to deliver to the Twin Cities?Courtesy Lee Nachtigal

The Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is funding a project to model how to grow algae on a scale large enough for biofuel production. Researchers at Dr. Roger Ruan’s lab grow algae in sewage plant discharge. Their idea is to build algae farms next to wastewater treatment plants so the algae can remove nitrates and phosphates from the water before it is released into rivers. Too many nitrates and phosphates are harmful to rivers, but these nutrients are good for algae. The algae also capture carbon dioxide released by the treatment plants when they burn wastewater sludge.
UMN Center for Biorefining

Why the growing interest in algae fuel? One reason is the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program. This program mandates that fuel producers derive a certain amount of fuel from renewable sources. Current standards require that 12.95 billion gallons of transportation fuel be from renewable sources. By 2022, this amount is set to triple to 36 billion gallons. RFS

There is a lot of talk about different renewable energy sources and it is difficult to decide which options are the best to pursue. Even if algae fuel never makes it to the gas pumps, it is encouraging to consider a renewable fuel that is less resource intensive and can actually help improve water quality. I would be interested to hear if anyone thinks algae are “fuel for thought.”

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I assume fuel algae would have to be deliberately cultivated, in large enough bodies of water that they'd need to be naturally occurring bodies of water rather than man-made. And I assume it would have to be harvested by some mechanical means. The first thought in my mind, then, is, "How would cultivating and harvesting massive amounts of algae impact the water ecosystem where it was grown?" Obviously, we can not figure that out entirely ahead of time, but I think we'd need to make a serious stab at doing so to minimize the negative impact.

My second thought is, it would probably be wise to come up with one refining process that could work on many different species of algae so that we could cultivate plants that made sense locally but still contributed to one broad-based fuel pool.

posted on Thu, 01/28/2010 - 11:19am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think that is a great point to think about. No matter what we do if we must harvest it we needs massive quantities because there are SO many people and we need or desire so much fuel! This means huge impacts on any local community or organism or ecosystem.

posted on Thu, 01/28/2010 - 7:10pm

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