Thursday, September 30, 2010

How promising is algae biofuel?

Algae biofuel is something that is currently receiving lot of attention and many consider this as one of the most promising biofuel technologies that should in years to come significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

It is not very difficult to spot the advantages of using algae biofuel. Algae biofuel can decrease the need for fossil fuels, and expensive foreign oil, it can reduce our carbon footprint, and make our environment healthier by decreasing the climate change impact. Also, with the future development of renewable energy sources such as algae biofuel, air pollution resulting from fossil fuels burning and (upcoming) energy crisis resulting from the exhaustion of natural resources would no longer present such an imminent threat. However this would require using algae biofuel on massive scale.

Harvesting algae to manufacture algae biofuel can be a rather challenging process. Collecting algae involves the process of separating it from its growing medium which alone is connected with some difficulties. Afterwards, the algae must be dried and only then we can transform them into biofuel. Also, there are many different algae species, meaning that some species require different conditions that need to be developed prior to harvesting. The drying of algae is vital component in the harvesting process, and this also requires special conditions.

In the midst of algal growth tanks, researcher Brian Dwyer views a sample prior to a turbidity measurement. (Photo by Randy Montoya).

Oil extraction from algae is a much debated topic because it is currently connected with significant costs. In theory this process could not be easier, just harvest the algae and remove the oil from it, but the reality gets much more complicated once you include costs of this process. The mechanical method and the chemical method are the two most common methods used to extract oil from algae.

Like with any other energy source we also need to discuss possible environmental impact of algae biofuel, whether it is a positive or negative. The environmental effects of extracting oil from algae are also quite controversial topic because some environmentalists do not think they are environmentally friendly source of energy. These negative opinions are mostly connected with solvents used to extract oil as they can if not treated properly harm not only our environment, but can also have negative impact on human health. This is the main reason why science is working hard to come up with the environmentally friendly extraction processes but so far the possible solutions have not been acceptable from the economic point of view, because of the high costs, which does not support commercial component of mass production.

What this means is that although algae biofuel is one of the most promising biofuel alternatives currently being researched, it is still far from reaching a level where it will be both economically viable, as well as environmentally friendly source of energy. This means that science still needs to provide answers to these issues, and improve environmental as well as economic component of algae biofuel.

Those are serious setbacks but these setbacks should serve as a great motivation for us to work harder, and devote our resources and expertise to overcome these challenges, and create algae biofuel that would not be connected with negative environmental impact, and in the same time making extraction less costly. The need for renewable energy sources is more than obvious, and each renewable energy source with big enough potential needs more attention, Algae biofuel is definitely one of the potential answers to cut our dependence on fossil fuels.

You can read the following article if you want to learn more about algae biofuel: Biofuel production from algae.

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