Algae as a viable food, feed and energy option

At a time when most conventional fuels cast ever longer shadows of unintended consequences, algae ­that lowly pond scum — offers a pleasant surprise: a near-term, low-tech alternative with apparently few of the hidden costs of more elaborate, expensive and exploitive energy sources.

The first, simplest, and fastest-growing life form, algae holds unheralded promise to become a pivotal resource for the planet's future as the basis for a high quality biodiesel that doesn't (like corn) siphon food from humans. And it’s not just a fuel. It’s animal feed, human food and the building block for a wide range of biodegradable bio-plastics to replace petroleum-based plastics. And algae does all this as it grows by absorbing enormous amounts of CO2, the very greenhouse gas we most urgently need to reduce.

At the moment algae is not a high priority on most national or major corporate energy R&D agendas, but it is rapidly gaining traction in the private sector and academia as its potential becomes clear. In some cases it is being researched by giant energy conglomerates as a byproduct of the development of so-called ‘clean coal,’ since it effectively absorbs the CO2 generated by the burning of carbon. But coal is nothing but 500 million-year-old algae. So, ask some algae advocates, why not just stop strip-mining and mountaintop removal, leave the coal in the ground and instead farm fast-growing, CO2-absorbing algae?

Technical obstacles

This is not a distant dream. One fact that sets algae apart from just about every other energy option, conventional or alternative, is its simplicity, ubiquity, and near-term availability. Algae researchers say that while technical obstacles remain to be resolved before they can achieve cost-effective large-scale production for its many uses, none appear to be insurmountable. With its prodigious growth habit, algae under cultivation does need to be carefully controlled. Algal blooms occur naturally, but they are also triggered by chemical and agricultural pollution. It’s a serious problem and must be considered when designing algae farms in the open rather than in the controlled environments of bio-digesters, as most biodiesel is currently produced. But unlike a nuclear chain reaction, even if allowed to bloom excessively, algae will inflict consequences nowhere near those of a nuclear meltdown.

On a recent visit to ENN, a fast-growing Chinese energy company based an hour from Beijing, this correspondent was given a tour of a laboratory where a team of scientists is developing micro-algae for a variety of uses. It’s part of a joint venture between ENN and Duke Energy, the largest US public utility. Standing in a sunlit greenhouse filled with walls of clear glass tubing through which green sludge circulates, Liu Minsung, the young, energetic director of ENN’s algae team, gestured to a row of transparent vials of varying colour and consistency.

In 2012, the US Navy will launch what it calls a Green Strike Group, a flotilla of ships powered by a 50 per cent algae-based and 50 per cent  NATO F-76 fuel, forming a 50/50 blend of hydro-processed renewable diesel. By 2016, the Navy plans to launch a Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group composed of hybrid electric ships and aircraft propelled by biofuels including algae, and ­maybe not so green- nuclear-powered vessels.

Algae is a full circle innovation because it serves many uses at once. In its elegant synthesis of stacked functions, algae as fuel, food, feed and plastic follows bio-logic rather than techno-logic. It demonstrates the virtues of elemental simplicity in an era of hype technology. Technological solutions have grown so complicated and costly that, as with not-so-smart phones, a surfeit of inessential features ends up defeating their core capabilities. Algae is ancient but it is far from primitive. In fact, it has had about five billion years to evolve into a lean green growing being.

Like every other ‘solution’ that’s ever been devised, algae undoubtedly has shadow sides that have yet to be discovered. But the greatest danger it poses is that, like the electric car, it won’t developed. But one great virtue of algae is that you can grow your own. Life on earth began with algae, and if life is found on distant orbs it will likely be algae we find there first. Will this simplest, wisest life form help rescue us from our energy dilemma?

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