Sustainable America Blog

Algae Is Moving Fast

It’s no surprise that algae-based biofuels continue to make progress. Algae is fast-growing and doesn’t compete with existing food sources like corn ethanol does. With an increase in funding, the support of the military and exciting new research happening all the time, we’re excited to follow the development of this burgeoning industry. This week, we offer the most recent algae updates.

Millions In New Funding The biofuel industry received a considerable boost last week when the Obama administration announced nearly $18 million in funding to produce biofuels that meet military specifications for jet fuels and diesel. Four new biorefinery projects will receive funds, with the biggest percentage going to BioProcess Algae in Shenandoah, Iowa. The company will receive up to $6.4 million. “While the primary product from the proposed biorefinery will be military fuels, the facility will also co-produce additional products, including other hydrocarbons, glycerine, and animal feed,” according to Algae Industry Magazine, a trade publication.

Algae Whiz Kid Seventeen-year-old scientist Sara Volz has been making some algae news of her own lately, as she explained to ABC News. The high school senior beat out 1,700 other science stars nationwide to win the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, and her winning project was on, you guessed it, algae biofuel. Algae produces a natural oil that can be used as diesel biofuel, but doesn’t traditionaly produce enough of the oil to make the process financially viable. For her research, Volz grows algae under her bed and works to make it increase its oil production by artificial selection. Simply put, she eliminates the algae populations with low oil production and develops the algae populations with high oil production. The great thing about the oil produced is that it can be used as a drop-in fuel that can be used directly in diesel engines with no modification. The U.S. Navy has already done demonstration flights using similar fuel. Volz won $100,000 from Intel and will be using it for her education at MIT.

Next Step: Land We can’t all grow algae under our beds, and even if Volz’s research results in super-algae that produces diesel fuel at accelerated rates, we need somewhere to grow it.

According to Scientific American,

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that nearly 14 percent of land in the continental United States, or roughly the combined area of Texas and New Mexico, could be used for converting algae to transportation fuels.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that for algae fuel to replace all the petroleum fuel in the U.S., it would require about 30,000 square kilometers of land, or about half the land area of South Carolina. Therefore, this finding illustrates the potential of algae-based fuels, and for that matter, the potential any alternative energy source that requires vast amounts of land.

The catch is where this land would be located. The cost of the land, infrastructure and resource availability are all factors that need to be considered. Marginal and unproductive cropland seem to be attractive spots to begin with. In order to use algae biofuels nationwide however, the industry will need to find some way of partnering with the oil and gas industry to sell its fuel.

While the algae biofuels industry has great hurdles to overcome in the near future, Dr. Stephen Mayfield, the director of the UCSD Algae Center for Biotechnology, provides a hopeful analogy: “There was no petroleum industry in 1900, we needed energy, so we built it.”

New Tough Products The usefulness of algae certainly isn’t confined to biofuel production. “Genes from the family of bacteria that produce vinegar, Kombucha tea, and nata de coco have become stars in a project… that would turn algae into solar-powered factories for producing the ‘wonder material’ nanocellulose,” according to a press release from the American Chemical Society. Scientists at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) announced that their research has reached the point at which they can start producing nanocellulose in larger amounts using a genetically engineered blue-green algae that requires only sunlight and water for fuel and removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process. According to the press release, “Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar.” The material’s great strength and light weight have obvious military applications including lightweight armor, ballistic glass, wound dressings and scaffolds for growing replacement organs for transplantation.

Sustainable America sees great hope in the use of algae, especially in the production of advanced biofuels that don’t rely on our food supplies to make fuel, and we look forward to providing more exciting updates in the future!

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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