Super Algae to the rescue!

At a press conference today at the annual AAAS meeting, several scientists discussed the very real possibility of algae as a future super biofuel.

This is not new news. According to Al Darzins of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Department of Energy looked into algae as an alternative fuel source as early as the 1980s. Budget cuts and cheap oil in the 1990s slowed the research process, but as we look to a future of renewables to halt our dependence on oil, algae has once again come into the spotlight.

Algae inhabit an amazing diversity of habitats. Algae can grow in salt water, brackish water, fresh water… But wait, there’s more! It can also grow in waste water, essentially cleaning the water while growing. And it can feed on (and clean up) the CO2 waste from coal-based power plants. It may also be able to grow on non-arable land.

What makes this especially exciting? As researcher Ron Pate of Sandia National Laboratories simply puts it, “Algae can produce oils… and there’s a lot of promise to create quite a bit of oil from algae.”

The researchers are currently discovering which algae have higher oil content, and which might be better suited to specific locations and seasons. And, importantly, how algae biofuels can be affordable. Robert Hebner of the University of Texas believes that he can get the costs close to three dollars per gallon.

Running your car on algae biofuel won’t happen too soon, however. Along with costs, regulations and environmental risks with large scale algae production still have to be assessed.

As one of our favorite renewable energy champions, Dan Kammen of UC Berkeley, reminded us today, algae will probably just be one of many diverse and sustainable energy resources in the future.

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