Is Algae the Next Big Energy Source?


As the world searches for greener renewable energy sources to power our future, one unexpected type of biofuel is stepping forward as a frontrunner: algae.

Experts have determined that the United States has the resources to create 25 billion gallons of algae fuel per year. Although that wouldn’t be nearly enough to replace fossil fuels altogether, it could take over one-twelfth of America’s energy needs, which would certainly put a dent in carbon emissions.

Speaking of carbon emissions, one of the other benefits of algae is that it absorbs carbon. In Kentucky and Australia, they’ve placed algae ponds next to power plants to effectively reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that winds up in the atmosphere. Even if algae fuel cannot replace all of the other harmful power sources immediately, it can at least help to offset some of the pollution coming from these other sources.

While all of that sounds like a win-win situation, unfortunately, there is one major ecological downside to algae, namely water. In order to grow the algae to create the fuel, a whole lot of water is necessary. To make just one gallon of algae fuel requires approximately 350 gallons of freshwater. The unusually high water requirement has been enough to cause some scientists to abandon algae as a legitimate source of energy entirely.

One way to cut down on the amount of water required is to be more strategic in locating the algae farms. Since algae thrives best in humid, sunny climates, situating the facilities near the Great Lakes or the Gulf Coast would help to lower the amount of water necessary. Furthermore, while thus far algae-fuel has been grown and developed on freshwater, researchers are trying to find similar success with either salt or waste water to make the energy source even more viable moving forward.

Ultimately, the real factor that will determine whether algae power goes mainstream will be the cost. Until producing algae energy is affordable, it is not likely to take off. The Algal Biomass Organization has declared that it expects algae fuel to be comparable to the cost of oil in as soon as 2018. However, the CEO of Exxon Mobil believes that it is actually more than 25 years away. (Although Exxon does stand to profit from the continuation of oil reliance, the corporation has spent $600 million on developing algae technology, so their estimation is not necessarily baseless.)

In the meantime, we’ll have to see whether the cost and reliance on water does indeed decrease over time. Unlike other alternative energy sources like corn and soybeans, algae isn’t a staple of the human diet (well, for now anyway… at least one Care2 writer has promoted the consumption of algae as a source of protein) meaning it is not in competition to be used as a food crop instead.

At any rate, algae’s green energy potential is certainly high enough to warrant further research and experimentation. Of course, with the threat of climate change looming, there’s no excuse for any option to go unexplored.

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