Do little one-celled plants hold the key to our energy future?
How to wean ourselves off fossil fuels? A tough question with a seemingly simple answer: use renewables. But alas, not that simple. As we all know, there are significant technological and economic hurdles. But hurdles are opportunities for the enterprising and the race is on to win the renewable energy sweepstakes. Already wind and to a lesser extent solar energy are making inroads. Bioenergy is also very much in the running.
The use of bioenergy has a long and storied history. Have you ever been around a campfire? Those marshmallows were cooked with bioenergy. In fact, our use of bioenergy for cooking, heating, and keeping the lions and tigers away goes way back. How far back? Well according to some, we can thank Prometheus for giving us the secret of fire. Archeologists will tell you that that is just a myth and that humankind’s use of fire began some 400,000 – 800,000 years ago without intervention from the gods.
Fire’s cool, but not the only way to use bioenergy. A more complicated way is to convert biomass to liquid fuel – a form that is more easily stored and transported than wood. In fact we’ve been converting grains to ethanol for quite some time. Of course, while ethanol makes a very nice liquid fuel, most of the ethanol we’ve made down through the ages was used for a different, shall we say recreational purpose.
Nevertheless, bioenergy in the form of biomass and biofuels like ethanol have been used to make and power engines throughout the Industrial Revolution?. (Ford even included ethanol as a fuel for its first Model T in 1908.) But with the discovery of cheap and readily available oil, bioenergy fell out of favor.
But times have changed and with the drive to find renewable energy sources, bioenergy is back on the table both as a source of heat and electricity and a transportation fuel. Most ideas for harnessing bioenergy focus on using terrestrial plants:
- Typical sources for heat and electricity include wood, biomass (wood, agricultural, animal) waste, and garbage.
- Typical sources for transportation fuels include sugarcane, grains like corn, plant oils like soybean and canola, and (one day) cellulosic material like switchgrass and stover.
Algae Joins the Ranks of Bioenergy Alternatives
But while work proceeds to bring these terrestrial sources to market, others have taken the plunge and are pursuing algae. No, they’re not planning to tool around lakes with skimmers collecting green stuff. It’s more of a farming/industrial process. The idea is pretty simple. The algae are either grown in tanks or shallow ponds in either an open or closed loop system. The best part is that algae appear to have several inherent advantages over terrestrial feedstocks that include fast growth rates and high biomass yields per unit area. Moreover, unlike land plants, algae can be grown on marginal land with degraded or saltwater.
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