A key ingredient in green fuel?
Let’s face it, our planet needs an alternative fuel _ or else it will die. Biofuels are a popular alternative, but have what about algae biofuel? AIMEE SHAW investigates …
Since the beginning of time, cheap and abundant supplies of oil have given rise to the mass production of automobiles. As a result, the world has become critically dependent on oil.
The burning of non-renewable fossil fuel has created implications for our planet in terms of global warming: air pollution, climate change and wilderness destruction. As we continue to damage the environment, the search for a “greener” fuel is gathering greater momentum.
American journalist, Richard Heinberg, writes in his book Afterburn: A Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, that “the average global temperature has increased by 0,7oC and scientists predict a further warming by 1,4 to 5,8oC”. He adds that we will need increased financial and energy resources to repair the damage.
On the website A Brief History of Oil, environmentalist David Suzuki says: “Despite short periods of increased energy efficiency and development of alternative forms of energy, demand and use of oil have continued to climb.” The commitment to oil consumption in the United States has led to dangerous impacts for energy efficiency and self-sufficiency. The answer might lie in a green fuel, better known as biofuel.
Biofuel is derived from 80 percent renewable materials, and is able to remove carbon dioxide from the air during production. Biofuels have been around since the first combustion engine was designed to run on a blend of ethanol and turpentine made from pine trees. Researchers and scientists have often recommended the replacement of fossil fuel with biofuel in order to reverse the negative effects of fossil fuel on the environment.
Despite the benefits of biofuel, its negative effects on global warming, coupled with an increased awareness of food shortages, has resulted in a need for an even “greener” fuel. This has created a decline in the popularity of biomass for fuel.
Scientific studies have shown that specific biofuels emit greater greenhouse gasses than fossil fuel, depending on methods of production.
According to an annual 2014 State of Food and Agriculture report: “Unintended negative impacts on land, water and biodiversity, are among the side-effects of agricultural production, and with particular concern to biofuels.”
The report notes: “Nitrogen fertilisers release nitrous oxide; a greenhouse gas with a global-warming potential 300 times greater than carbon dioxide. In addition, fertilisers and pesticides continuously release greenhouse gases during production.”
The most suitable biofuel would ideally need to be sustainable in nature and must be able to be mass produced economically, without releasing dangerous carbon emissions. This has led our focus to shift towards algae as a biofuel.
Algae consists of a diverse group of organisms and is grown in damp and moist ponds. During photosynthesis algae uses carbon dioxide, sunlight and water for energy and growth.
Compared to traditional farming methods for biomass, algae produces double the amount of material, which is easily harvested. Furthermore, it can easily be converted into a net carbon-neutral process called algae biodiesel, which is cleaner burning than petroleum and traditional biomass.
Algae-based fuels complement the environment and have proven to be a feasible option as they do not compete for valuable resources during production. If utilising algae has immeasurable benefits, why is our global economy not relying solely on algae as the main source of fuel?
The greatest challenge for algae biofuel is to economically mass produce it. The editor of Biofuels Digest, Jim Lane, says: “Algae would need to reach a market-ready cost per litre to successfully compete with oil-based products.”
What does “market-ready” involve? The founder of Algae Biomass Organisation, John Benemann, says: “It will cost at least US$ 5 000 (R78 796) to produce one tonne of algae.”
In his article on the website Biofuels Digest, Benemann says: “If you optimistically presume that each tonne of algae has 30 percent oil embedded in it, this will translate to US$ 50 (R788) per litre of oil, before extraction and conversion to diesel.”
However, extensive research is being conducted on economically viable means for mass production, and the answer may be genetic engineering by biotechnologists like Craig Venter.
Venter is known for discovering the human genome sequence and for transfecting a cell with a synthetic genome. His company, Celera Genomics, together with the Institute for Genomic Research and Exxon Mobil (an international oil and gas company), is actively testing genetic manipulation for purposes of rapidly increasing production, while reducing atmospheric CO2.
Venter says: “There might be an absence of a key nutrient that only genetically engineered species can compensate for.” Through these nuclear genome sequencing projects, relevant tools are being developed and specifically designed for algae transgenes and gene knockdown.
Moreover, technology and research advancement has created the possibility of a bioengineered algae strain to significantly reduce mass-production costs for global market success.
As the oil industry reaches its peak and threatens global warming, scientists are doing extensive research into alternative forms of fuel. Algae has proven to be a feasible option in terms of renewability and sustainability. It also does not compete for valuable resources during production. Algae can positively impact the planet’s sustainability and significantly reduce carbon dioxide. It might also be the friendly fuel we have all been waiting for.