Why Algae Could be the Future of Sustainable Energy

         Since the 1970s, the global scientific community has been scrambling to find an alternative fuel source to replace traditional “fossil fuels”. This is due to both emerging evidence of significant environmental damage caused by extensive use of traditional fuels, as well as the gradual realization that the rate of use of these fossil fuels is not sustainable and will eventually reach the point where it is too expensive to locate remaining fuel reserves, which will grow increasingly hard to access. Sustainable  clean energy is the current focus of global energy infrastructure development as the case to be made for it grows stronger every year. Not only are traditional energy sources such as coal, natural gas, and oil disrupting the carbon cycle and releasing tons of CO2 into the biosphere, but they are being depleted faster than they are produced.  

As French Professor Augustin Mouchot wrote in 1873 – “The time will arrive when industry of Europe will cease to find those natural resources, so necessary for it. Petroleum springs and coal mines are not inexhaustible but are rapidly diminishing in many places. Will man, then, return to the power of water and wind? Or will he emigrate where the most powerful source of heat sends its rays to all? History will show what will come.”

Now, 143 years later, scientists are still in pursuit of that question. Wind, Hydro-electric, and solar energy are all being researched as scientists try to decide which form is most worthy of investment and contains the most potential. One form of energy that is often over-looked is bio-fuel. Bio-fuels are hydro-carbons just like those in petroleum, except they come from recently living organisms instead of those from millions of years ago. Ethanol is the most common bio-fuel used in the United States and most of Europe, although the attention is now starting to shift towards algae rather than the food-crops that ethanol and other advocated bio-fuels were made of.

Global Algae Innovations is a company dedicated to innovating the bio fuel production industry. In an interview with Seeker, CEO Dave Hazlebeck explains why and how the company will do that, and how they have already done so.

Algae is a prime candidate for bio-fuel production for a multitude of compelling reasons. Hazlebeck begins the interview by pointing to the fact that algae is not a food-crop, so the energy supply would not draw from the world’s food supply, the effects of which can be seen in the rise of food prices due to ethanol.

An opinionated article from Forbes cites the statistic that, “In 2000, over 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock, many in undeveloped countries, with less than 5% used to produce ethanol. In 2013, however, 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage”. In a matter of 13 years, more than a third of the total output of corn production was redirected towards ethanol.

This affected consumers more than would like to be acknowledged. Corn had more than doubled in price by 2007, going from roughly approximately $1.90 to $4.00 a bushel in a matter of 7 years. According to inflation, they should have cost no more than $2.30 if the commodity had followed the trend of inflation. Consequently, a significant portion of the daily foods the average American consumes experienced an increase in price as a result of using corn-based ingredients, milk, meat, and cereal being examples of such common commodities. Corn is a staple crop, found in many of the foods we eat in some form or another. The National Chicken council, an organization whose members are responsible for 95% of the chicken production in America, explains the impact of ethanol on the poultry industry on their website –

“The price of corn used to make feed is actually the largest single part of the cost of raising chickens. This cost has been pushed way up by the ethanol program. Some of this higher cost has already been passed along in the price of chicken. Due to competitive reasons, chicken producers have not been able to pass on the full cost. As a result, many of them are losing money and some have been forced out of business. This will probably lead ultimately to tighter supplies of chicken and higher prices for consumers.

Change in corn price over time - sourced from the University of Michigan

Change in corn price over time – sourced from the University of Michigan

 

When an alternative energy source is competing with the food supply, the sustainability of such food source needs to be re-evaluated. The Forbes article titled “It’s Final — Corn Ethanol is of No Use”, which was previously sourced above, had concluded the potential for bio-fuels by acknowledging the possibility of using algae as a bio-fuel producer, considering the fact that algae is overwhelmingly more efficient than ethanol.

The most common natural oils used are rapeseed and canola oil, but a particularly promising candidate is oil from algae. Algae production uses non-productive land and brine water and produces over 20 times the oil production of any food crop. An acre of algae can produce almost 5,000 gallons of biodiesel. It does not compete with food crops for arable land or potable water and could produce over 60 billion gallons/yr that would replace all petroleum-based diesel in the U.S.

However, all algae production facilities presently sell their crops to the food and cosmetic industry at a much greater profit than they would get from the fuel industry.

 While ethanol depletes the food supply, algae supplements it. Dave HazleBeck explains in the interview to Seeker, “With all the other bio-fuels, you’re just growing it, your’e just getting bio-fuel. In this case, every pound of bio-fuel, you get ten pounds of food with it.”

According to the US Department of Energy, “The key to algae’s potential as a renewable fuel source lies in the high productivities of algal biomass that can be grown in a given area; some researchers say algae could be 10 or even 100 times more productive than traditional bioenergy feedstocks. Achieving the potential for these high productivities in real-world systems is a key challenge to realizing the promise of sustainable and affordable algal biofuels”. 

HazleBeck provides another reason in order to explain why algae has an advantage over the currently used bio fuels, elegantly stating “When we grow algae, there is no run-off. All the nutrients are captured in the algae”.

Another problematic pollutant that is captured in the algae is carbon. This is the true purpose and power of bio-fuels, to utilize the Sun’s energy to not only create carbon-based energy sources, but to derive that carbon by pulling out CO2 from the atmosphere, creating a sustainable balance of carbon in the atmosphere. The idea is that instead of manufacturing and using expensive photo-voltaic substances to convert sunlight to electricity, lets let nature’s solar panel (chlorophyll) do the work for us and create a usable form of energy in the form of carbon bonds. The advantage not only comes in form of the costs for the material, but in the fact that bio-fuel’s energy is stored by using sunlight to fixate carbon molecules. Even then, much of the carbon is left residing in the matter that is left behind after the extraction of the oils produced by the algae that are refined into bio-fuel.

In an article published by The Conversation in May of 2016 titled “Can we save the algae biofuel industry?”, the problems facing the industry are summarized well in a quote that reads –

Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite to plan. Companies making algal biofuels struggled to retain their high productivity at a larger scale and found predators often contaminated their farms. They also found that the economics just didn’t make sense. Building the ponds in which to grow the algae and providing enough light and nutrients for them to grow proved too expensive, and to make matters worse the oil price has plummeted.

The argument made here against algae biofuel is that the production facilities are too expensive to create and the apparent costs of providing nutrients and sunlight to the algae are as high as to make it not worthwhile for profit-driven companies.

The article by The Conversation then addresses the courses that need to be taken to reach progress in terms of economic costs in maintaining the facilities.

“To make this model cost-effective and sustainable, we would need to use waste sources of heat, carbon dioxide and nutrients to grow the algae. These are widely available from power plants, factories and water treatment plants and so could reduce some of the costs of growing algae. After making algal fuel, you’re left with lots of proteins, carbohydrates, and other molecules. These can be converted into the kinds of products mentioned above, or used to produce biogas(another fuel source). This biogas can be sold or used at the bio-refinery to produce heat for the algae, closing the loop and making the whole process more efficient.”

Hazlebeck has already dismissed the notion of paying steep prices for algae nutrients by explaining the concept of recycling agricultural waste. He also proposed building such facilities next to factories and channeling waste CO2 from factories to the algae. The Biofuels Digest reports that Global Algae Innovations “picked up a $1 million Department of Energy grant last summer ‘to increase algal biomass yield by deploying an innovative system to absorb carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a nearby power plant.'”  Even waste water can be re-purposed to supplement the algae with nutrients and water, killing two birds with one stone while providing a service. With the algae fixating the nitrogen and other waste-material from the water, eliminating the need for a water treatment facility’s service.

What costs that cannot be eliminated through recycling and re-purposing of waste can be covered in profits made from selling this aforementioned biogas, as well as other valuable products that algae can produce. Products including food, omega 3 supplements, plastics, pigments, dyes, anti-oxidants, anti-biotics, and anti-fungals can all be made from bi-products of Algae. As The Conversation put it, “The diversity of these products may be the key to finally developing algal biofuels. Many are high-value chemicals, selling for a much higher price than biofuels. So by combining them with biodiesel production, we could subsidize the price of the fuel and offset the high costs of algal cultivation.”

algaecy

The only thing holding the industry back is a lack of short-term revenue that is needed for a company to design and release products. The main limitations are economically related, not bound by science. The concept is practical, it is the cost of implementation that is restricting the growth of this market. HazleBeck tells Biofuels Digest when asked about its current focus of operations, “The focus for now? Getting to scale.  As with everything in the [bioeconomy] sector, it’s not enough to be environmentally advantaged, more sustainable. It has to be economic.”

CEO HazleBeck shifts focus again by talking about another environmental advantage using algae as a bio-fuel source has, the notion that the efficiency of output per acre compared to other bio-fuel sources is much higher, which would be encouraging less deforestation that stems from the growing demand of land to be used for food production. The CEO says that “the leading cause of deforestation is for food-production, with algae producing 40 times more[bio-mass] per acre, that means if you plant 1,000 acres of algae, that is 40,000 acres of crops that don’t need to be planted.” Not only could algae biofuel’s replacement of ethanol serve to increase the food supply, both by boosting corn production for food and supplementing the food reserves with algae biomass, but algae could also end up reducing the need for deforestation by utilizing landmass more efficiently in terms of food production per given area of land.

In short, there is a near-neutral carbon trade off for using this fuel once the production facilities are constructed. For every CO2 molecule that is released after combustion of this fuel, there was a CO2 molecule fixated by the previously living cell. And much of that carbon does not even lead to combustion, but rather food. The carbon fixation and bio-fuel production is powered by the sun, with chlorophyll acting as nature’s solar cell. HazleBeck says in Seeker’s interview that “if every power-plant had an algae farm next to it, it could potentially solve the global warming issue entirely”.

Not only does this energy source filter CO2 from the biosphere, but agricultural run-off as well. Redirection of agricultural run-off to these facilities can benefit both the environment and the algae company in terms of costs for nutrients. The biomass that is left behind after extraction of the oils can be turned into food, which can generate more food per acre than corn, along with some biofuel.  As icing on the cake, different strains of algae can even be used to produce different bi-products that can sell in various markets such pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, and even cosmetics. Rather than using a variety of scarce and valuable resources to produce solar panels for power, the complex system that is an algae cell can be put to use for a much lower cost than would be spent designing and producing artifical machines that use the sun’s energy to fuel itself.  Nature has provided mankind an unfathomably complex system that can pull CO2 from the atmosphere and fixate the carbon into lipids that can later be refined for the bio-fuel, and result in a bi-product of food that can help reduce poverty and starvation….one can only ask why this concept is not being taken more seriously.

algea

As implicated above, the economic challenges facing the developing industry are what is holding back the implementation of algae biofuels in our daily lives. In the interview with Seeker, HazleBeck gives insight into the future of the industry and his company with this quote –

“You can see with all these tremendous benefits, you know, why aren’t we doing it now? Why hasn’t it been done? The problem is the costs are too high throughout the entire process.  And so it really requires hundreds of innovations throughout the entire process in order to reduce the costs because it was about 10 times too high… Our approach was different in that we looked at every single step. developed a model to look at the costs, and the other thing is we didn’t give up on any critical issue. So a gallon of oil when we started would have been about 30 dollars a gallon. Now, with the innovations we’ve made over the last few years, we’re down in the range of two to three dollars a gallon as a projected cost. Now we are not there yet from the standpoint of production, but depending on how fast we can get to scale, we can potentially have solutions within the next few years, and that is really exciting. It will change the geo-politics of the world. A lot of the reasons we have wars are because of fights over resources. By creating a more equitable distribution, with countries being able to create their own, it should lead to a more stable and peaceful world.”

CEO HazleBeck shifts focus again by talking about another environmental advantage using algae as a bio-fuel source has, the notion that the efficiency of output per acre compared to other bio-fuel sources is much higher, which would be encouraging less deforestation that stems from the growing demand of land to be used for food production. The CEO says that “the leading cause of deforestation is for food-production, with algae producing 40 times more [bio-mass] per acre, that means if you plant 1,000 acres of algae, that is 40,000 acres of crops that don’t need to be planted.” He further said, “The work we are doing here is extremely important, the world desperately needs algae bio-fuels and algae protein production. It’s going to have a big impact economically, its going to have a big impact on reducing poverty – improving standards of living because it will create jobs and revenue in rural areas. That is why I decided to start this company, so that it could happen quickly. It is too important for the world for it not to happen.”

 

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Student intern who writes for We Are Change
Has lived in the city of Miami, the mountains of Virginia, the swamps of South Carolina, and the city of Wilmington, on the coast of North Carolina.
Writes on current events, politics, and anything else worthy of news coverage
Experience: Life

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