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Algae Could Be The Next Fuel Source

February 11, 2009

Scientists are hoping algae can help remove greenhouse gases and create new oil reserves.

Millions of years ago, algae turned the earth’s hostile atmosphere into a life-supporting one through photosynthesis, a process used by plants to turn carbon dioxide and sunlight into oxygen and sugars.

Eventually the algae sunk into lake and sea beds, slowly becoming oil.

“All we’re doing is turning the clock back,” Steve Skill, biochemist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, told Reuters. “Nature has done this many millions of years ago in producing the crude oil we’re burning today. So as far as nature is concerned this is nothing new.”

Scientists are now searching for a way to turn algae into bio-diesel, jet fuel, and plastic products.

“So we are harvesting sunshine directly using algae, then we are extracting that stored energy in the form of oil from the alga and then using that to make fuels and other non-petroleum based products,” Skill said.

According to Skill, the industry could be refining algae in workable amounts for commercial oil production within the next ten years.

The fuel would be considered carbon neutral because of algae’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases.

Many companies, including Sapphire Energy, OriginOil, BioCentric Energy, and Petro Algae, are already working on algae based biofuels.

Last month, Japan Airlines had a test flight with a jet fuel using a blend of biofuels and algae oils.

MPX Energia plans to use 10-15 percent of carbon emissions from a coal-fired plant to feed their algae when they begin work in 2011.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory is taking a new approach to algae.  The group hopes to apply knowledge about algae to biotechnology, instead of working to create fuels from scratch.

According to Carole Llewellyn, a marine chemist, some of the claims about algae based fuels are overstated.

“They (algae) do have a lot of positive attributes but there are a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome before this becomes a commercial reality,” Llewellyn said.

Algae grow 20 to 30 times faster than food crops, and while prime farmland has to be used to cultivate crops for bio-diesel, algae grow primarily in uninhabited areas.

The group is researching what types of algae produce the most oil, and which absorb the most carbon dioxide.

Many scientists see a future in which exhaust fumes are sent from industrial plants to feed algal beds.

The idea of using algae for fuel is not new.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government began funding research of algae based fuels. 

In 1996 the program was discontinued because of a report stating that producing bio-diesel would not be cost efficient until oil prices reached $40 a barrel.

Oil prices were $46 a barrel on Tuesday.

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