Lowly, single-celled microalgae may eventually be used to make large quantities of biodiesel, ethanol, and even hydrogen. At a small DOE plant in New Mexico, researchers produced up to 50 grams of algae per square meter per day, using native algae species that naturally took over the ponds. This might be enough to yield 6,800 gallons of oil per acre if sustained for a year. Today, the capital costs of establishing an acre of algae ponds (mixed by motorized paddle wheels) are still much higher than those for conventional oil crops producing biodiesel or for corn crops producing ethanol. But algae ponds require only a fraction of the land area. That's a critical advantage at a time when widespread biofuel production bears part of the blame for tropical deforestation and food shortages in developing countries. Biodiesel from algae is lead-free, almost sulfur-free, biodegradable, and can run any modern diesel engine.
SHARPCHARGE / ISTOCKPHOTO / NATIONAL RENEWABLE ENEGY LABORATORY THE FUTURIST March-April 2009 25 © 2009 World Future Society • 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, MD 20814, U.S.A. • All rights reserved. F irst, the bad news. A 2006 re- ing countries. for producing biofuels (biodiesel, port by the U.S. Department of Biodiesel from algae is lead-free, ethanol, biogas, and hydrogen) is in Energy (DOE) predicts that almost sulfur-free, biodegradable, conjunction with municipal and ag- cars and trucks powered by and can run any modern diesel en- ricultural wastewater treatment. batteries or hydrogen fuel cells gine. Biodiesel also lessens global Wastewater from about 1,200 dairy will total only one-tenth of one warming because it’s made from cows, 5,000 pigs, or 30,000 people percent of new vehicle sales in the plants that absorb carbon dioxide would supply nutrients for 25 acres year 2030, mainly because of the while they’re growing, thus compen- of algae ponds (the minimum eco- limited driving range, high vehicle sating for the carbon dioxide re- nomic scale). costs, and lack of infrastructure leased when the fuel is burned. Ac- Mixed algae ponds may also be an for refueling. cording to the DOE, unblended affordable alternative for the world’s With fuel cells, there’s also the (B100) biodiesel fuel emits an aver- fastest growing and potentially most problem of developing a cheap, age of two-thirds less CO2 and five carbon-intensive economies, China abundant source of hydrogen to other air pollutants than does petro- and India. The IEA study includes power them. leum diesel. However, biodiesel is maps of the global distribution of the Under current policies, the DOE more likely to cause engine problems three nutrient sources, as well as now predicts that relatively clean- in cold winter weather unless it’s maps of appropriate climates, flat burning ethanol and biodiesel won’t blended with petroleum diesel. And lands (required for algae ponds), af- supply more than 11% of the fuel for burning biodiesel produces slightly fordable lands, and lands with the America’s motor vehicles in the year more nitrogen oxide, although the required infrastructure. A composite 2030. Conventional crops can’t amount of this air pollutant is much map of these resources shows that produce enough of these biofuels per less when using biodiesel blends or the greatest production potential for acre to meet the enormous demand, the emission-control systems in new this technology is in China, South- which is expected to grow 40% diesel vehicles. east Asia, India, western Africa, and by then. The market generally points to a southeastern United States. Fortu- The numbers are daunting, but bright future for diesel. Market ana- nately, China and India already have one solution to our growing hunger lysts expect the price of petroleum a thriving industry using shallow for transportation fuels may be very diesel to be closer to that of gasoline ponds (often mixed by paddle simple: algae. in a few years. Then, Americans will wheels) to produce algae for nutri- Lowly, single-celled microalgae start purchasing more low-polluting tional supplements. may eventually be used to make diesel and diesel-electric hybrid ve- Unwanted microorganisms often large quantities of biodiesel, ethanol, hicles. Sales will grow as potential invade open ponds, so a series of and even hydrogen. At a small DOE buyers realize that the new “clean bioreactors would also be required to plant in New Mexico, researchers
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