One thing we have learnt this week- algae

00001_optThis week I was going to blog about peak oil after I found an surprise article on it on a financial website, but then I found yet another one on algae.  We’ve seen it growing, the green, brown or red slimy stuff.   Algae is family of micro-organisms which like plants mostly use photosynthesis to grow.  Could these tiny organisms be the answer to the world’s energy problems?  Or at least those relating to transport.  This is some of what we wrote about it in our book.

Some forms of algae use photosynthesis to produce an oil-like substance, and a huge amount of research is going on in this area to develop a commercial process for harvesting the algal oil and producing usable fuel. In theory algae has significant advantages over other sources of oil for production of biodiesel. Being photosynthetic, its carbon source for growth is carbon dioxide and its energy source is light. It therefore doesn’t require any valuable crop or energy input for its growth stage. The process of production is to some extent established, having been used on a small scale for many years.

The fact that the energy comes from light for the production process and importantly it requires no input of nitrogen fertilizer or carbon are huge advantages, as are its productivity compared to other biofuels.  Some very impressive figures are quoted in the article on algae linked to above.  You could also grow it (in theory) on marginal land where its not possible to grow food, eliminating the eat-travel dilemma.  If you could replace all the world fuels with algal based fuel you could capture and store at any one time a very large amount of CO2, which we may need to do to tackle climate change.

But the issues we raised in our book still stand.  Do you grow algae in open ponds where the optimised strains can be contaminated by wild strains?  Or in tanks?  Building and maintaining algae in tanks in sufficient quantity to replace even part of the world’s transport fuels is an enormous undertaking (and will take very large amounts of energy).  The issue of where also crops up.  Algae will do so much better in the tropics than temperate regions.  Deserts or out at sea are mooted but transport, water and storms are all issues that would have to faced.  In deserts seawater could be used but would have to be pumped to the algae if they were grown inland, taking energy. In many ways I would be delighted if algae could solve even some of our peak oil and climate problems, but until some of these practical issues are faced it looks like a pipe dream.

Neil

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