Climate change, slime-it change. Researchers and startups around the world are continuing to work on ways for algae — those oozy, gloppy organisms that range from pond scum to seaweed — to be raw materials for biologically based fuels that reduce our use of dirty energy sources overheating the Earth.
The hope is that, because algae take in carbon as they live and grow, they can be solutions to the problem of human-made carbon pollution. Although there are challenges to address with using algae for biofuels, researchers have made significant progress.
Algae are lifeforms that, like plants, perform photosynthesis — the use of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide, water, and minerals into oxygen and energy-dense compounds such as sugars.
Unlike plants, algae lack what we think of as roots, stems, leaves, and internal systems for circulating nutrients. Some algae are tiny cells that grow in clusters; others are larger forms, like seaweed, that are called macroalgae.
Because algae are naturally abundant and can grow in salt water and even deserts, they don’t require uses of land that could be used for food or forests. This is an advantage of algae over other plant-based sources of biofuel material.
The exploration of algae for biofuel isn’t new. According to How Stuff Works, a 1970s government research program prompted by a U.S. oil crisis explored whether certain algae could be made into fuels.
In recent decades, oil companies, perhaps feeling pressure to green up their acts, funded research. This funding has more or less dried up, as accentuated by ExxonMobil’s withdrawal this year from a 10-year project, reportedly because of high costs and the limitations of algae at producing enough oily lipids to be competitive with petroleum.
That said, funding from other industry and government sources may be turning on the pump again for investment in algae research, Mongabay reports.
Most recently, scientists have been focused on selecting algae strains and using bioengineering to increase algae’s lipid content, which makes them more useful for biofuels, according to Innovation Origins (IO). The outlet also reports on other improvements, such as enhanced methods for cultivating, harvesting, and separating algae from other materials.
One project by the company Brilliant Planet is — according to IO — growing algae in the Sahara Desert and “mimicking natural algae blooms.” Such blooms can be environmentally problematic elsewhere but in this case are controlled.
Despite the challenges, the demand for algae as a sustainable fuel source remains great. According to a 2010 research analysis, algae are responsible for 40% of carbon capture by natural systems worldwide. And algal fuels could help fill a growing need. The International Energy Agency reported that “Biofuel demand in 2022 reached a record high” but will require “an average growth of around 11% per year” to meet emissions goals — especially from nonfood sources such as algae.
Advances could be made more economically viable with creative uses of byproducts — like “high-protein biomass, antioxidants, and pigments” — as IO notes.
IO cites market research predicting algae biofuel will grow significantly by 2030. It concludes that, “The collective effort of academia, industry, and policymakers is critical to overcome the challenges and pave the way for a greener, more sustainable energy future powered by algae-based biofuels.”
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