Algae to the Rescue?

In a technological survival of the fittest, super-algae that can efficiently convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils that can be refined into diesel or jet fuel is the endgame for dozens of companies and hundreds of academics.

Absolutely fascinating.

The potential of Franken-algae to produce 10+ times more fuel per acre than corn (ethanol) or soybeans (biodiesel) is a huge lure. I have real issues with the inefficiency of growing food to produce fuel that actually consumes more energy to produce than is delivered. People and politicians at large have glommed on the idea of biofuels without really understanding the consequences and in this case, inefficiencies that negate any positive impacts, but I digress…slightly.

One of the biggest draws is the ability for algae to be grown on undesirable land (arid land, brackish water) so the “cultivation” of algae will not compete with food production. Perhaps an even bigger draw is algae’s consumption of carbon dioxide, thus lessening its impact on global warming.

This all sounds great. What are the potential downsides?

Genetic engineering usually involves the introduction of genes from other organisms and this is a worry since single-celled photosynthetic organisms produce much of the oxygen on earth and are the foundation  of the marine food chain. I am currently waiting on a copy of Sea Sick by Alanna Mitchell to become available at the library. I saw Mitchell in an interview when the book was published last year and it does not sound good. I don’t know if this is addressed in Sea Sick but approximately 40% of the oxygen we breathe comes from algae in the oceans- not something we want to (continue to) mess with.

Much of the fear lies in the unknown. What could happen if super-algae are inadvertently released into the ecosystem? We are assured that it would be a nonevent- that these Franken organisms would not survive against “wild algae” if they escape or if their ponds were invaded.

How many times have we seen this arrogance in science fiction be the catalyst for a cataclysmic event? I am not saying these scientists are wrong, I am just wondering how they can be so certain?

Okay, I’ll let my imagination run unfettered elsewhere.

The possibilities are seemingly endless. Even Bill Gates has gotten into the game- funneling serious money to Sapphire Energy, apparently one of the best-positioned companies to optimize the strains to make algae competitive as a source of energy. (Mental note: see if Sapphire Energy is listed on any stock exchanges.)

I was flipping channels a long time ago and watched a program featuring a subdued Kevin O’Leary (of Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank and The Lang and O’Leary Exchange fame) as an investor in green technologies. I wonder what he would have to say on the topic.

But I digress again.

Hmmmm, pond scum can be your friend.

Who knew?


~ by angryegg on July 28, 2010.

2 Responses to “Algae to the Rescue?”

  1. Algae is renewable, does not affect the food channel and consumes CO2. To learn about the fast-track commercialization of the algae production industry you may want to check out the National Algae Association.

  2. There really IS an association for everything! Some interesting links, especially to some youtube videos illustrating the applications and the processes involved. Thanks for the tip.

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