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

Take Back Your Future

eagleThe Environmental Center has “positive action” as one of its core values.  Our message is, “Doing some positive for the planet and other people feels great and is fun. So, join the party.” Still, we often get the response, “What’s the point?” And a dispassionate analysis of the state of the world and the structures of power make this a perfectly reasonable point of view. 

In deciding what to do for this year’s Earth Week celebration, students at the Center decided to take up this challenge head on. The theme they chose was “Take Back Your Future,” and they have consistently reminded me that the note of defiance in the title is important. Even our positive crew feel that with the recession, bailouts, debt, climate change, and the potential for large-scale renewable energy still unrealized,  their future is vaporizing. 

This cuts especially deep around the issue of jobs.  Students at Fort Lewis graduate with a good idea about what the world needs and plenty of passion to provide it. But it’s rough out there, and the opportunities to earn a living while doing something positive for the world are always harder to come by than entry-level service jobs.  Why is this? If the supply-and-demand curve is the answer to all our problems, why isn’t there a robust market for jobs in public service? This question is deeply frustrating for students, especially when they see CEOs earning millions for crashing their company and the economy.

Defiance in the face of the disconnect between what is and what ought is necessary. But what does effective defiance look like?  EC students have some ideas.  Earth Week starts with a re-localization fair on March 29th and then continues with events on public service careers, alternative health care, and food security, and then ends on April 2nd with a campus forum on civil disobedience that asks, “What is the best response to a political system that defends powerful interests instead of empowering its citizens?”

The truth is that the impact of one week of events will be limited. But the impact of a campus full of students geared up to take charge of their own future and that of their communities could be devastating. Take Back Your Future is a call to arms. Let’s link them together and demand a future we can all be proud of.  Visit the Earth Week 2010 website for all the details.

Marcus Renner

Energy in the Future

windturbineMost people have realized that the future of transportation relies heavily on alternative fuel sources.  The majority of experts agree that at some point we will run out of fossil fuel and will be forced to adopt new technologies in order to continue our ability to travel large distances in a short amount of time.  But where we will go from here?

According to the Durango Herald Colorado State University is experimenting with longer lasting batteries that may allow electric cars to be more efficient and cheaper to drive.  Colorado State University’s batteries are cheaper to make, last longer, and are more powerful than the lithium ion batteries that we use today.  This new battery could allow electric vehicles to travel hundreds of miles on a single charge.  Currently the lithium ion rechargeable batteries used in electric cars cost around $15,000 and can only power a car between 40 miles, for the new Chevy Volt, to 244 for the Tesla Roadster, which costs $45,000.  With this new technology we may see more affordable electric cars that can be driven as far as our modern gas powered ones.

Another method of fueling vehicles is by using Biodiesel.  According to there are many ways to create biodiesel, including using many of the same processes as making paper.  In Missoula, Montana, a paper mill has closed putting workers out of business and has led politicians and business owners to search for a new way to employ workers.  One idea is to convert the paper plant to produce biodiesel.  Whether or not this is a good idea is hard to say but if this does pass it would mean more jobs for people in Missoula as well as a new source for biodiesel in the area.

To prevent our world from falling apart lets continue to look for new ways to power our vehicles and, hopefully, we will be able to break our dependence on fossil fuels.

Ben Rogers