Biofuels from Algae - The History, Present and Future

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One way to reduce fuel consumption is to encourage motorists to drive fewer miles and in the UK short term car insurance companies such as are promoting new driving habits, with large numbers of people looking upon their cars as transport for special occasions rather than day to day motoring. However, as an alternative to fossil fuels, scientists have been researching making fuels from algae for a number of years. This idea was first proposed in the 1950's, when it was thought methane could be produced from algae.

During the fuel crisis of the 1970's, the idea gained ground, and the U.S. Department of Energy began the Aquatic Species Program. From 1980 to 1996, the department spent $25 million to make fuels from microalgae. The program grew thousands of species of algae, mostly in open ponds, and conducted research on engineering fuel from algae. But after 16 years, the program ended due to budget cuts.

Now, however, unrest in the Middle East and environmental concerns about burning fossil fuels have renewed interest in the research. Hundreds of companies around the world are looking into producing algae biofuels, many of them in the United States. Advances in genetic science have also made algae biofuels more feasible.

The Algae Biomass Organization, a non-profit that promotes producing biofuels from algae, says that they will be available commercially in the near future. The algae can be grown in non-potable water and on poor farmland, and it takes harmful CO2 out of the environment. The organization also says algae biofuels will provide tens of thousands of jobs.

Algae industry spokespeople agree that algae has a high per-acre yield and can be easily grown. The use of it for biofuel also leaves current biodiesel crops, such as corn and soybeans, to be used exclusively for human and livestock consumption. Another advantage is that algae thrives on the runoff water from current crops, which contains ammonia and nitrates. Channeling this water to the algae crop will help keep it out of water sources.

But there are serious questions about growing algae for biofuel, as well. The biggest question is, will algae biofuels really work? Although research has been conducted for several years, not much of it has addressed the viability of algae biofuels for everyday use in transportation and industry. One issue is the amount of polyunsaturated fats in algae biofuels. This can be an advantage over current biofuels, because the fats keep the fuel more stable at low temperatures, whereas current biofuels tend to gel in cold weather. But the fats make the fuel less stable in hot weather, potentially causing summer driving problems.

Another question is, can enough algae biofuel be produced for commercial use? No one is sure at this point. Research funding on the issue is also being held up by lobbyists for the use of corn and soybeans. Rex Tillerson, the chairman of Exxon Mobil, says that $600 million has already been spent on algae biofuel development, but it's still more than 25 years away from commercial viability.

So growing the algae seems to be quite doable, and even good for the environment, but will the algae create enough biofuel for commercial use, and will it be a quality product? Given the current state of uncertainty, the future of algae biofuels seems doubtful.


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