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

Indirect Domestication of Wildlife

Bears going through garbage

Bears going through garbage. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laura-kali/4675381179/.

We’ve all seen them munching in our gardens or digging through our dumpsters.  More and more we are seeing our towns and cities becoming a safe-haven for what we call wild animals.  While some areas may see this less, in Durango we see this on a regular basis.  We also see a variety of animals entering city limits like bears, deer, and numerous amounts of birds.  From a quick glance this may not seem too large of a problem, but when looking into the effects that this collision has on the animals exposed, this problem is anything but minute.

There lies a clear, common distinction between what is domesticated and what is wild.  This distinction can be easily recognized at a young age and is part of our ability to identify between what is predictable and safe (domesticated) and what is not predictable and potentially unsafe (wild).  This distinction is becoming less and less apparent for certain species living within city limits.  With a constant exposure to potential threats (humans/dogs) deer are becoming more comfortable and may even appear tame.  So what’s the big deal, we all like to see a buck every now and again, right?

There are many factors that are concerning regarding this indirect domestication of wild animals.  These concerns can be divided into several groups, this effect on humans, this effect on the species involved, and this effect on the species new environment.  To start with the more obvious effect that this might have on humans.  One common observation of domesticated animals is a lack of movement in light of a threat.  This can cause many various problems with a wild species unleashed in a human environment.  For example the amount of wild animals hit with vehicles within city limits will most likely increase with 1) population of wild animals that inhabit that city and 2) the time of exposure to potential threats.  With regards to population size, for obvious reasons, the larger the population the more potential for interactions.  With regards to time of population exposure, the more time a population is exposed to sustained potential threats, the more that population will ignore them.  This also can create dangerous situations with potentially predatory animals such as bear or mountain lions due to an increased comfort of not only the animal, but humans as well.

Next we can look at the potential effects on the species involved.  An obvious first example is relocation when found or death when found multiple times.  This can be seen in bear populations that are entering city limits and numerous relocations and killings of bears.  Bears and other wild animals are also affected by eating things that they shouldn’t be eating, such as trash or non-native garden vegetation.  Other effects on animals have to do with specific physiological changes over time.  This involves the constant exposure to potential threats that lowers the fight or flight response within the individual.

~ Drew Walters

Have a Beer and Stimulate Local Business

BeerWe all know the Silver Bullet Train and that magnificent Clydesdale bunch.  We even know when our beer’s cold because the mountains turn blue!  Come each and every January, our brains are riddled with competitive Super Bowl advertising campaigns triggered to bring in great revenue for the upcoming year.  If asked what 5 beer companies first come to mind, I’d bet Coors, Miller, Blue Moon, Bud, and Michelob would be among the most frequent.  Coincidentally, the first three are “crafted” by Molson Coors Brewing Company and the latter two by the Anheuser-Bush brewing powerhouse.  These several companies have a relentless grip on the advertisement and distribution of beer throughout the U.S. and most other parts the world.  How did this happen?

With regards to the North American market, in 1919, the U. S. government passed a national ban of the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States.  This ban shutdown most all of the over 3,000 breweries, only the several largest were able to stay in business by brewing soda.  In 1933, when prohibition was lifted, these large companies began mass-producing beer throughout America.  Smaller brewers weren’t able to compete with these companies that could mass-brew and distribute product at an extremely low price, remember prohibition was lifted in a time of economic crisis.  As time went on, the largest companies became even more powerful and the idea and art of craft brewing was lost.

Not until 1978, when Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing, was this art again seen on a large scale.  Home brewing allowed for brewers to perfect their skill and create products that could compete with the larger beer-manufacturing giants.  It’s around this time that we see the modern microbrew pioneers, such as Sierra Nevada, emerge.  This new wave of microbreweries brought not only competition to the larger companies, but also new products for the consumer.

Due to economic feasibility, the largest companies tend to mass-produce only one style of beer, usually the pale lager.  Microbreweries have the ability to expand their products, brewing many ale-style alternatives.  To understand the basic differences between the two major styles of beer, ale and lager, we must first understand the biology.  The major differences in biology have to do with the species of yeast that separates the two styles.  Ale yeast is the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae.  This species ideally ferments in warm temperatures, 65-80 deg., and produces a flavorfully, fruity product.  On the other hand, the lager species, Saccharomyces pastorianus, is a hybrid species that prefers low temperature, around 45 deg., and produces a much different flavor seen in products like Budweiser and Coors.  There are also some differences in the barley and hop preparation/addition.

Since 1978, America is seeing more and more microbreweries, recently reaching over 1,700.  Durango alone hosts four and soon to be five microbreweries as well as a large congregation of home-brewers and a Home-Brew Store.  All of the beer bought from these Durango breweries provides jobs for Durangatangs as well as revenue that stays within the city limits.  Buying local brew also greatly reduces your carbon footprint because there is minimal shipment of the product.  To even further reduce your footprint, save, wash, and de-label your glass bottles and offer them to a local home brewer, possibly in return for some home brew.  It is up to us to continue the movement from large beer-manufacturing machines to local-based craft beer breweries.  So next time you crack open a cold one, make sure it’s a Durango or Colorado local brew.

~ Drew Walters