One of the big advances we’ve seen in moving towards a renewable future is in the field of biofuels. And one of the sources of biofuels currently being studied is algae. It grows on your pond, or at the lake near your house, but it might also one day keep your car running and your plane in the air.
And a joint venture between Rose Ann Cattolico at University of Washington and investment company Recently Allied Minds might soon see a different type of algae for different types of situations.
"People don’t realize how many types of algae there are – from single cells to large kelp – and each one develops differently," Cattolico said. "What we’re trying to do is choose the best of the best, the ones that produce the right lipids for a particular type of fuel."
When I first read about this, I was absolutely fascinated. So often we just read that “algae biofuels” is going to be an option for us down the track. Now I find out that different types of algae will be better suited to power different types of things.
Corn has recently gone out of favor as a possible mass-produced biofuel, due to the massive amount of pollution that its growth will make, and the corn that it will take away from people’s mouths. And where corn produces starch as a result of photosynthesis, algae make lipids, a naturally occurring molecule such as fats, waxes, and oils.
Some oils created by algae might be appropriate for fueling a motor vehicle; another might be more suited for home heating oil; and yet another might be the right type to power an airplane. While we’re at it, some algae oils might also provide useful for other products, in the same vein that omega 3 fatty acids make fish such a popular and healthy product.
In fact algae’s are quickly turning into the star of the biofuel world. It does not require masses of farmland to produce, and can use wastewater instead of diverting freshwater. And with fuel prices skyrocketing, water availability a real and present issue, and the loss of farmland for these products a concern, algae comes out on top in all categories.
And though it could take 10 to 25 years before algae-based biofuel is readily available to the public, the possibilities are huge. Erick Rabins, vice president of Allied Minds, based in Quincy, Mass, and interim manager of the startup company between Allied Minds and UW, says that "The most optimistic assessment that I’ve heard is that it could be six to eight years before there’s something that’s useable, but the tools and techniques to make it possible are being created right now.”
Cattolico knows that algae can be a real answer to many prayers in this day and age of high fuel prices. But she also doesn’t believe it is the only answer. She wants to see a wide sweeping commitment by government and industry to ensure a quick development of alternate energy sources.
"What we need is a Manhattan Project for fuel," Cattolico said. "If we can get a Manhattan Project for fuel, it won’t take 25 years."
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