As the human population grows, our energy resources slowly mitigate. Within the past few years, energy has become more precious due to shifts in the economy and our struggle to be independent of countries which provide fossil fuels at high costs. This shift has revitalized our search for a source of energy that can be produced domestically and in a closed loop, a source that will sustain us for years to come.
Unfortunately, biofuels derived from crops such as corn and soybeans does not quite cut it due to its effect on the food market and its low oil yield per acre. According to this article, if the U.S. were to devote all of its corn and soybean production to fuels, it would only meet about 12% of the U.S. gasoline demand, and this is not accounting for the current fossil fuels it would take to produce the actual biofuel. Thus, many of us instill our hopes onto a more efficient organism: algae.
There exists a plethora of benefits in employing algae as a source of biofuel. One such benefit is that algae does not require as much land as a food crop in order to produce equivalent yields of oil. Additionally, the fact that algae is not a food crop eliminates food partitioning concerns as well. Another benefit is that algae can grow in wastewater or salty water, thus diverting us away from the use of freshwater. However, it has been found that algae produces more oil through the use of freshwater. Moreover, since algae is a photosynthetic organism, it needs carbon dioxide, therefore consuming about 14 kilograms of the greenhouse gas for every gallon of oil. Furthermore, the fuel derived from algae had slightly better mileage than petroleum-based jet fuel in a test flight done in early 2009, illustrating algae’s compatibility with current engine designs.
So if algae has so many positive aspects as a biofuel, then why has it not been commercially available yet? One thing is that it is not very economical to produce, thus rendering them uncompetitive with fossil fuels. According to this article, algae-based fuel can range from $10 to $100 per gallon, much greater than the $60-$80 per gallon of petroleum oil. The energy costs to pump water to the algae can incur add to steep pricing as well. Overall, the most expensive components in algae biofuel production come from harvesting and extraction.
Regardless of these high costs, I think it would be worthwhile and within our best interest to promote biofuels derived from algae. The marginal benefits substantial outweigh the marginal costs; there is no other way to see it. If the appropriate policy changes are made within the near future, I feel that those changes would greatly facilitate algae’s rise to commercial usage. Some policy changes could offer credits to companies who utilize algae to reuse carbon dioxide, in addition to capturing it. Algae’s potential as a fossil fuel replacement is astonishing and I hope that we can tap into that potential in the coming years.