October 22, 2009

Algae: The Next Fuel Source?

The next renewable source of clean energy could come from the surface of lakes and ponds.

Experts say algae holds many benefits, such as its ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Scientists have yet to find a way to turn algae into cheap, clean renewable fuel, but that doesn't mean they aren't making the effort.

According to an AFP report, university labs, startups, and even corporations like ExxonMobil are putting forth investments to discover ways to turn algae into fuel.

Apart from being able to soak up carbon dioxide, algae have other alluring traits including its consistency "“ slimy and full of fat.

If scientists can make a cost-effective way to convert lipids from algae into fuel, their investments will pay off.

"I think it's very realistic. I don't think it's going to take 20 years. It's going to take a few years," chemical engineer George Philippidis, director of applied research at Florida International University in Miami, told AFP.

"We could hook up to the exhaust of polluting industries," Philippidis said. "We could capture it and feed it to algae and prevent that CO2 from contributing to further climate change."

"Where algae is very nice is, it's prolific. It's everywhere... and you don't have to do much. Mother Nature has kind of figured it out," said Roy Swiger, director of the Florida division of the non-profit Midwest Research Institute.

MRI's research of algae as a fuel source began three years ago.

But Swiger said that algal fuel is not cost-effective yet, as it currently costs up to $100 to create a gallon of the fuel.

Paul Woods, chief executive of Florida-based startup Algenol Biofuels, said he thinks his firm will be the first to find the right formula.

"We see ourselves as a very cheap way to supplement (energy supply)," Woods told AFP, "and the more cheap ethanol we have, the more we're winning in efforts to have independence from foreign fuel."

The company has partnered with Dow Chemical to create a plant with plans for commercial launch by 2011.