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Algae: Fuel of the Future?

algae blooms in Finland

Algae blooms along the coast. Photo used by Fair Use.

The global population of humans has seen alarming exponential growth in the past century, which can be largely attributed to the exploitation of our most prized resource: fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are utilized in most facets of human society including agriculture, transportation, clothing and technology. However, with our increasing reliance and use of these non-renewable resources, comes the concern of oil reserve depletion. Peak oil indicates the point in time in which maximum petroleum extraction is reached and, within our modern population, is a concern that this may also be the limiting resource for our species.  In other words, as peak oil is reached and our oil supplies decline, our population numbers will shortly follow. This highlights the importance of exploring alternative petroleum sources that are socially, ecologically and economically sound. In this article, I will address one of the possible alternatives and with that several issues concerning this potential global solution to peak oil.

There has been much research and many publications regarding algal fuels as a potential solution to peak oil concerns, due to their direct petroleum replacement capabilities. However, the economic efficiency and social feasibility continue to be a topic of chief concern. Currently, if produced on a large scale, algal fuels are estimated upwards of $10 per gallon, which, compared to fossil fuels, are not as economically feasible. However, continued research will only decrease these economic figures and with the potential positive ecological and social results, this may be an ideal future prospect.

With regards to the ecological benefits of algal fuels, several are most prominent.  Algal fuels are autotrophic microorganisms that provide a carbon neutral fuel source, which may address concerns of global warming. In a basic sense, algae utilizes CO2 as the carbon building block for hydrocarbon chains (fuel), which takes as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as is released by burning the refined fuels. In comparison to burning fossil fuels, this may result in a more stable atmosphere, which in turn will decrease the amount of abnormal temperature fluctuations globally. These current abnormal temperature fluctuations are a causative agent of global population crashes and more recently have been hypothesized to be a primary reason for the current global extinction epidemic.

It has been observed that, in some locations, oil-drilling sites cause significant negative effects on the surrounding environment. Chemicals released throughout the drilling process as well as anthropogenic fragmentation are concerns for many conservation biologists. Another ecological benefit of algal fuels involves the ability to use sewage water, which is high in nitrogen and phosphorus and used as “fertilizer” for the growing algae. This would decrease the issue of oceanic dead zones caused by sewage disposal along coastal regions and allow those habitats to begin the process of recovery.

Since humans first began to mass-extract fossil fuels, there has been much conflict throughout regions where large oil reserves are present. A shift to algal fuels may reduce social problems currently seen due to fossil fuel extraction. Since algae grow in nearly every region of the earth, in theory, algal fields could be placed in all regions and territories. Furthermore, the highest production would be in regions that have the largest amounts of solar radiation, such as arid desert regions. These arid climates commonly struggle with social conflicts and depressions due to low amounts of fertile land and limited access to clean water. While the amount of water sources for these regions is of concern for algal fields, further research may be able to utilize algal fields as purification ducts, providing economic stability from fuel production and increase water sanitation. After the fuels are extracted, the remaining algae may be used for agricultural purposes, providing a more stable food source.

So while there is much more research that must be completed in order to provide an economically, ecologically and socially sound alternative fuel source, algal fuels appear to be a promising option for the future.

By Drew Walters

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