Photosynthesis Power: Algae as a Green, Clean, Energy Source


By Emma Bailey


Water continues to be the source of all life-giving power. The microorganisms which formed petroleum were, of course, first found beneath the sea bed; however the harmful, expensive and dirty process of their extraction negates most if not all benefits of their continued use. Algae, also typically found in aquatic environments, may seem to be an unlikely candidate for energy generation. However, these waterborne organisms, capable of cleaning wastewater while also providing a viable source of biofuel, might be the clean, “renewable” energy source we’ve all been looking for.


Through the photosynthetic process, algae converts and stores energy from the sun in the form of oils and carbohydrates.  In turn, this oil can be harvested and used to produce biofuels used as replacements for diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum based products.  When burning algae-derived biomass, the CO2 released into the atmosphere is equal to the CO2 absorbed by the algae while growing.  Apart from any CO2 used in production, the entire process is essentially carbon-neutral.


While algae can be found in many forms, some types of algae have shown the additional benefit of having the ability to process wastewater and remove all impurities.  For instance, sugar kelp consumes nitrogen found in sea water allowing it to assist in the cleanup of fertilizer pollution, leading researchers in Scandinavia to explore its use as both a fuel and a water treatment material. Algae Systems already has a pilot program in Daphne, Alabama, that can treat 40,000 gallons of water daily per acre using algae, generating 3,000 gallons of biofuel yearly per acre.


Unlike most other biofuels, algae doesn't compete with plants used for food production. It instead grows in marshy land or on the water: places that are ill-suited for food crops. This means that algae power can be ramped up significantly without leading to higher food prices. What's more, there are plenty of useful algae byproducts such as animal feed, fertilizers and cosmetics. While using algae to produce fuels, companies could sell these products to make the endeavor more profitable. Algae compares favorably to other biofuel options in terms of yield, with an acre of algae generating thousands of gallons of fuel per year as compared to less than 100 gallons for corn and soybeans.


While the benefits associated with using algae as a source of energy are extensive, there are still plenty of problems. In order to achieve optimal growth conditions, it must be kept in a temperature controlled environment, and the costs of building the necessary machinery and space is quite high at present. Some of the facilities designed to foster algae production ultimately use so much energy themselves that they have a worse carbon footprint than fossil fuels. Furthermore, scientists have found that most biofuels created from algae have problems flowing in colder temperatures, so in this respect, they are inferior to carbon-based resources.


Under the assumption that these issues can be overcome in the future, we could soon see algae powering transportation equipment, industrial plants and even consumer products for use by the general public. A hint of what's to come may be the unique BIQ House in Hamburg, Germany.  A residential property, this algae-powered building uses sun-exposed external panels containing algae to meet the needs of the building’s residents.  Likewise, Berkeley-based alGAS is looking at producing algae-based batteries for use in cars like Tesla’s electric models. Traditional gas companies have even used strains of genetically-engineered algae to clean up crude oil spills. Further down the road, this sustainable solution to sea-scrubbing may become a primary source of power in itself.


Due to the fact that it can generate fuel while simultaneously cleaning wastewater and producing useful byproducts, algae energy could prove profitable in a variety of settings and locales. Algae is all-natural, renewable and clean, and can conveniently be grown in remote places that don't interfere with either agriculture or industry. If the problems that currently plague this industry are eventually overcome, this renewable source of energy has the potential to rival, if not replace, fossil fuels in coming years.