Even the word sounds slightly slimy. “Al-gae” — especially when articulated slowly, is a sort of squishy, guttural utterance —and when one imagines the subject of these syllables, themselves, they seem a rather fitting appellation. To accompany their aural ooziness, many visual and somatic properties of algae make them organismae-non-gratae for anyone with whom they come in contact. A lot of folks frankly dislike the idea of the green stuff murking up their decorative Kio ponds, lining their local swimming holes, or even staring up at them from the label of their daily vitamins bottle.
Not biologists. Or chemists, or environmental scientists, for that matter. To them, algae are one of the most useful and versatile organisms in the universe — especially on this planet, which is so full of animals breathing the oxygen algae pump into the atmosphere and drinking the water that algae help strip of excess carbon dioxide and inorganic nutrient waste.
Especially on this planet, whose sovereign species is at the dawn of a global energy crisis.
Over the past century, algae have gone from being a vastly under-appreciated ecological and nutritional resource to becoming recognized for all of their redeeming qualities, and thus (of course) put to work as a health supplement, as an eco-friendly fertilizer, as an energy source, and as a no-engineering-needed air and water purifier.
And now scientists, small companies, and even big fuel giants are studying algae for their potential to produce one of the most successful biofuels in the world.
Not only are algae more efficient than current renewable fuels in terms of the amount of material needed for substantial product yield, they are also more carbon-reducing and could be less problematic for farmers to find the time, energy, and space to grow.
According to ASA member and biofuel researcher John Korstad, “Algae are a far more effective source of fuel than corn ethanol, diesel from corn stover (the inedible part of the plant), or promising fuel-producing weeds like switchgrass, because the kinds of lipids that algae store when they photosynthesize utilizing carbon dioxide and nutrients in water are a more efficient source of energy than cellulose and starch. Pound for pound, even switchgrass doesn’t approach the percentage of fuel that scientists have been able to extract from the same amounts of algae so far.”
John, a biologist and the head of the honors program at Oral Roberts University, became interested in biofuels while on sabbatical in the fall of 2009. After spending a year talking to scientists around the world involved in algal biofuels research, John decided to go back to the field to study them, and has already co-authored four papers on the subject. With a B.A. in Geology, a B.S. in Biology, an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.S./Ph.D. in Zoology, John sees algal biofuels as, “A way to make many, many lemons into lemonade…” Maybe not lemonade that most people would want to drink, at first — but promotion of the algae and its potential is one of the hurdles scientists currently have to overcome.
The unnerving fact for investors is that biofuels have been around for years, successfully brewed from the sugars in plants like corn, sugarcane, and soy. But these “first generation” biofuels also compete with food crops for arable land, water, and processing energy, which has mitigated their success both environmentally and economically. “Second generation” biofuels, on the other hand, are those sources that don’t compete with food crops, including cellulosic, corn stover, switchgrass, jatropha, unused fruit pulp, and other types of organic industry waste.
According to John, the idea of converting algae into energy isn’t a new one, but only in the past few years have studies shown that the process of producing algal biofuels can be orders of magnitude more efficient than making similar power-supplying products from algae’s corn and switchgrass cousins. “Algae grow faster if there are adequate nutrient and CO2 sources,” says John. “They then store CO2 as carbohydrates, proteins or lipids. This makes them a great source of the kinds of fatty acids that can be converted to methyl-esthers (i.e., biodiesel). What’s more — algae actually capture the excess carbon dioxide released through combustion of fossil fuels. Algal biofuels aren’t just carbon-neutral, they’re carbon-negative.”
Many of the big companies that predict great things from algal biofuels (like BP and Exxon) are looking large and trying to perfect the craft of algal fuel production with large and expensive laboratories before going global, which could take years and years of work. While John sees such “big picture” efforts as being a great leap towards sustainability and a needed effort to get algae to produce large quantities of fuel, he’s also focusing his attention on the “little picture,” as it were.
John’s desire is to connect various industries that produce CO2 and nutrient wastes, which includes local oil refineries, electrical power
plants, cement factories, waste management landfills, agricultural land, animal feed lots, and city sewage treatment plants, and use this waste to cultivate algae for biofuels. The algae would improve the air and water quality by taking up the waste CO2 and nutrients, and then be of further benefit by providing a feedstock for biodiesel and chemicals used for nutritional and pharmaceutical products like omega-3 fatty acids.
“The thing about algae is that they naturally produce more of the lipids you need for biofuels, but it’s hard to expand this to the commercial level where you can produce thousands of barrels all year long,” says John. “My dream is to have basically half and half — greenhouse photo-bio-reactors (closed systems in which algae can be harvested daily) in winter and open-pond systems cleaning up waste water in the summer.”
John started his scientific career as a limnologist, or one who studies freshwater ecosystems (lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, wetlands, even underground springs — in short, every water feature that isn’t the ocean or the sea). His vision comes from a long history examining nutrient and phytoplankton (microalgae) interactions in the laboratory and in the field.
“If you think on the level of a smaller system,” John says, “third world countries, for instance, where people need clean water and energy, or the small farmer who has a pond that’s collecting fertilizer runoff and who could set up a biofuel-generating station to become self-sustainable… that’s where I think the inspiration is right now. I personally feel that all of the entrepreneurial companies looking solely at making money are missing the more important thing — but then again, those folks who have great ideas to do something good for the environment but which aren’t economically viable — well, that’s not good in the long term, either. I really think the thing to work toward now is finding out how it can be both at once.”
John also sees the potential of algal fuels as a bit of a God-given revelation. “To me, as a Christian,” he says, “God gives us witty ideas and insights all the time — and I think Christians should be more proactive about using those insights to help find solutions to the problems that face human beings and the environment (Creation) in which we live. That’s good stewardship!”