The Algae Revolution

It may look like pond scum to you, but one day, the plant-like organism known as algae could rule the world.  How can such an immobile, simple-bodied eukaryote pull this off?

For one, many of these little guys are photosynthetic.  “Big deal,” you say.  “Every plant on earth can claim the same thing, from the grass in the front yard to the tree across the street.”  That’s true.  But it actually is a big deal.  Consider what happens when photosynthesis takes place:

CO2 + Water + Energy (Sunlight) = Fuel + O2

Now consider this expression in the context of the world today.  On the input side, Co2, or carbon dioxide, is a major problem, since an excess of it is the main driver of global climate change.  On the “output” side of the expression is fuel, meaning stored energy.  Of course, our civilization has a voracious appetite for energy, which in one way or another powers everything about our lives.  So abstractly speaking, any process that takes in Co2 and puts out fuel is solving multiple problems at the same time.  (In fact, those problems result from the reverse process: we burn fuels to get the energy out, and end up releasing excess carbon).

Courtesy ImageAfter

Why Not Plants?

If photosynthesis is so great, then why bother with algae, instead of, say, trees? It’s a matter of efficiency.  For example, you can certainly get energy from a tree, once you cut it down and burn it.  But the efficiency is horribly low, especially when you account for how long it takes to grow a tree, and the amount of water it sucks up in the meantime.  Alternatively, corn can be grown for conversion to ethanol, which can then be used as a fuel.  But that uses up lots of valuable agricultural land that could be used for growing food.  Some scientists are experimenting with switchgrass and other sources of biofuel, with mixed results.

That’s where algae enters the picture.  Algae can be grown vertically, reducing space needs; it does not require fresh water or agricultural land; and it is very efficient at producing fuel, because pretty much the entire organism can engage in photosynthesis.

Plus, like plants, algae can be eaten!

Seaweed (Nori) wrapped around fish

Courtesy MorgueFile

A World Run On Algae

In a world where algae is used to its fullest potential…

  • Global climate change would be averted.  Algae oils, once burned, do put out carbon dioxide emissions.  But this is CO2 that the algae absorbed from the air when it was growing – carbon would be cycled back and forth continuously, and the levels of atmospheric carbon would stabilize.
  • Oil depletion would be irrelevant.   Show me a civilization that depends solely on fossil fuels, and I’ll show you a civilization that’s headed for collapse.  Oil will eventually run out, after all.  But a civilization built on algae?  That might stand the test of time.
  • Energy independence, for just about every country in the world.  We might still go to war over water or land, but at least we could power our lifestyles without dabbling in deadly geopolitical games.
  • These really cool algae-fueled streetlights would be everywhere.
  • And finally, algae could end up on your dinner plate, providing fuel for humans.  Algae is packed with vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.  And it can be delicious, as anyone who’s had sushi can attest (seaweed is a type of algae).

Not too shabby for pond scum, eh?  To be sure, there are some technical hurdles I’ve glossed over.  But the main obstacles appear to be economic in nature: it’s hard to achieve an economy of scale when the energy market is already dominated by oil.

But that’s nothing a little vision and serious investment can’t overcome.  What do you think – is there algae in your future?

7 thoughts on “The Algae Revolution

  1. Great post Scott. The problem with algae is that it’s extremely cost-prohibitive right now as you mentioned at the end. Hopefully that will change but I’m currently more excited about the prospects of solar, natural gas, and other forms of biofuel that are more cost-effective. Either way, we need to get off of oil as you said…that’s the key to our future.

    • True, the cost is a big obstacle, although my hope is that if we scale up production sufficiently, the cost efficiency will go up too. Other biofuels, or solar/wind, or other solutions, could certainly be a better bet depending on circumstances. In fact, I’m beginning to embrace the idea that we need a whole basket of different solutions, since no one method is quite perfect for every situation. Much to ponder!

  2. Scott, this is a great piece of information. I have had algae in food in different ways and love it. But aside from the edible formulations, like you mentioned, it has a far better return rate as a fuel than any other source of bio-fuel available. One thing about algae is its astonishing replication rate, of which no other food or fuel source can even come close to matching. I have read articles of it already being grown in vertical farms in Texas and such where there is a high solar availability. Might even be worth investing in in the near future. Just a thought.

    • Mike, good point about the reproduction rate. I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s really important for efficiency! I hope to see more of those vertical farms springing up, I think they have a lot of potential.

  3. A very nice article. I think biofuel from algae is the future fuel. I would like to know if it can be used in place of coal in EIIs (like cement etc.) where coal is used in large quantities.

    • That would be great – anytime we can displace fossil fuels with something more sustainable, it’s a good thing. Perhaps one day!

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