Oil prices recently hit $140 per barrel. The cost to grow and transport food is rising in tandem, and the global economy is being squeezed. Meanwhile pollution from burning fossil fuels continues to pollute the planet. The world needs an abundant source of clean, transportable, inexpensive fuel. Could microscopic algae hold a key to that future?
There has been a lot of hype surrounding oil production from algae lately. Visionaries claim algae holds the key to energy independence, but as exciting as oil produced from algae is, the reality is that a fossil-fuel-free economy is probably farther off than many think. That said, read on to find out why algae oil could also have a far brighter role in the future economy than most people might imagine.
“Algae is the ultimate in renewable energy,” says Glen Kertz, president and ceo of Valcent Products. Kertz is a plant biologist currently marketing his patented design for producing fuel from algae.
As it turns out, under the right conditions, many of these microscopic organisms can be very efficient at harnessing the power of the sun to create vegetable oil. They are much more efficient than corn, soybeans or palm trees—sources currently used to produce fuel for vehicles. According to Department of Energy research prepared by the Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (nrel), 15,000 gallons of algae oil could theoretically be produced from one acre of land every year. Kertz claims his company is working on a technique that has the potential to produce 100,000 gallons of algae oil a year per acre of land use.
Compare that to soybeans, which yield only about 50 gallons of bio-diesel per acre; corn, which produces 300 gallons of ethanol; sugar cane, which produces 662 gallons of ethanol; or oil palm, which produces 508 gallons.
Plus, algae can be grown on land that is unsuitable for agriculture—completely removing the fuel-food competition that is developing within the corn industry. In fact, some of the ideal locations for growing algae could be in the deserts. Some types of the oil-producing microbes even grow best in salt or brackish water, and others perform most efficiently when fed agricultural waste or sewage.
“The promise is huge, [but] the technical challenges are major,” says Philip Pienkos, a supervisor at nrel. Yet, “just like fusion, the potential for making a cheap source of energy with minimum inherent problems is too great to ignore.”
There are currently two different methods being used to grow and harvest the oil-producing algae, but both of them have hurdles to overcome.
The first technique was studied back in 1978 just after the fuel shocks due to the Arab oil embargo. Using this method, algae are grown in large open-air ponds. Carbon dioxide or other nutrient sources are added to the water (which does not have to be potable), and as the algae grows, it is harvested. From a technical perspective, the disadvantage of this method is that the open-air structure is susceptible to contamination. For example, bacteria from bird droppings could potentially enter the ponds and grow to compete with the oil algae—resulting in a harvest that produces little oil. Open-air structures can also lead to high water evaporation rates. The U.S. Department of Energy studied the open pond method for about 18 years, but in 1996 the feds decided that algae oil could never be economically competitive with fossil fuels, so the research was canned. The price of oil in 1996 was about $20 a barrel. Now with $140 per barrel oil, interest in research has returned.
100,000 gallons per acre per year), but so are the costs involved with building the infrastructure. And currently, scientists haven’t figured out a way to keep the plastic from eventually becoming clogged with algae (click here for video).The second technique involves growing algae in enclosed hanging plastic sheets in giant greenhouses designed to maximize sunlight exposure and keep contaminants out. The algae oil yield can theoretically be much higher using this method (
Both methods have other advantages. For example, besides producing oil (some algae contain far more than 50 percent oil), other useful products could be captured. The harvested starches could be transformed into ethanol, the proteins could potentially be used as feed stock for fish aquacultures, and the leftover waste could be burned in furnaces to generate another stream of energy.
Algae oil doesn’t produce as much pollution either. Burning algae oil is cleaner than other petroleum products because it doesn’t add to atmospheric CO2 levels. When oil is pumped from the ground and burned, CO2 is released, adding to the total concentration in the atmosphere. But, since algae takes in CO2 from the surface environment (not from deep within the earth where it is locked away) and converts it to oil and other products, no new CO2 enters the system when it is burned.
The niceties involved in oil-from-algae production are readily clear. But despite the fact that algae oil is cleaner than fossil fuels, and is more productive than other alternative fuels, the challenges associated with implementing a national algae-to-oil program would be significant.
With current technology, a lot of land would be required to produce enough algae oil to cover fuel demand.
America, for example, consumes approximately 3.4 billion barrels of gasoline and about 1.5 billion barrels of diesel per year. Since diesel engines are approximately 35 percent more efficient than gasoline engines, America would need roughly 2.21 billion barrels of algae oil to replace gasoline. All told, to replace both gasoline and diesel consumption with algae oil, 3.71 billion barrels of biodiesel (155 billion gallons) would be needed each year.
Therefore, if an acre of land produces 15,000 gallons of oil per year (as was estimated by the nrel, but was never actually reached), the nation would need to dedicate 10.4 million acres (16,250 square miles) to algae oil production. The Southwest’s Mojave Desert is approximately 22,000 square miles.
Turning an area the size of the Mojave into a lake obviously isn’t feasible. The hope is that oil yields will increase as technology advances. If Glen Kertz’s 100,000-gallons-per-acre claim is true and is ever reached, algae oil could become a very useful future energy source.
The cost involved to finance the construction of all the algae-to-oil facilities would also run into the hundreds of billions—even trillions. Then there is all the opposition that would be generated by the oil companies, Russia and the Middle East oil producers (who collectively hold trillions of dollars of U.S. debt) and other self-interest groups.
The fact is, as promising as algae oil might be, it isn’t about to provide any near-term solutions to the world’s energy problems. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to the future.
Eventually, a clean, easily transportable and abundant fuel source will be found.
The Bible indicates that there is a future time coming when the world will be free from the problems plaguing society today. That utopian time is called the Millennium. It will be a time of peace, abundance, environmental cleanliness and prosperity. It is exciting to think about what technologies await us in that future world. Who knows what undiscovered and unharnessed aspects of nature wait to be unlocked in that future time?
Will algae oil be one of them? Maybe. After all, it seems reasonable that the God of the universe who created the algae that are 50 percent oil, created them that way for a reason (Isaiah 45:18).
For a glimpse into the scriptures describing this future time of energy abundance, read The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like, by Herbert W. Armstrong. ▪