Could algae-based biodiesel be the fuel source of the future?
Could algae-based biodiesel be the fuel source of the future? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Monday, 29 August 2011 23:58

By Erin Steele, Peace River Record-Gazette

Change – when looking at the world as a whole – happens when it becomes necessary. The specific route of that change springs from the possibility of that route being viable. Taking into account these two factors, it is time for us as Albertans, Canadians and citizens of the Planet Earth to begin the shift from our dependency on fossil fuels to a renewable, biodegradable biodiesel that will sustain future generations and allow them the same standard of living we enjoy, potentially until the end of time.

We need to begin the shift by researching the best technology and means of creating biodiesel to make it most adaptable with our vehicles; it needs to be created as suitable for mass-production; governments should provide financial incentives to people to tweak their vehicles for accepting biodiesel; players of the stock market should start investing in renewable energies, as it is the inevitable way of the future. Most importantly we need to begin to seriously think of oil extraction as a temporary resource and ensure that by the time it runs out – and it will, whether 50 or 100 years from now – we are ready to keep up our standard of living through a seamless transition to a renewable fuel.

The answer is in algae. I will explain shortly, but a first a brief history on biodiesels in general.

Biodiesel is vegetable-oil or animal fat-based diesel fuel that becomes such when it reacts with alcohol. It is a relatively simple process, and can be used in diesel engines with only minor adjustments. It can be derived from a plethora of sources including algae, canola, restaurant cooking greases, and most recently coffee grounds. Although all of these sources of biodiesel can be used alone to fuel vehicles, there are petroleum hybrids where both types of fuel are mixed.

Today (August 10, 2011) marks 118 years since the first vehicle was run on biodiesel – in this case, peanut oil, and has since been declared International Biodiesel Day. It happened in Augsburg, Germany and was achieved by a man named Rudolf Diesel.

Today biofuel has been utilized throughout the world, though not to the extent one may presume after 118 years of potential technological research to create the most viable product.

On August 19 in Grande Prairie, the first biodiesel jet car will race in Drag Wars 2011 – it will be run off 100 per cent canola oil. In 2004, the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia began running its fleet of busses entirely off fish-based biodiesel. In Disneyland in 2009, it was announced the Park would be running its trains on biodiesel created from its own cooking oils. In 2007, the world's first airplane – a jet turbine engine flight that last 37 minutes and went up 17,000 feet – was powered by 100 per cent biodiesel from recycled cooking oil.

Shifting from fossil fuels to biodiesel is possible.

Though picking which source we can use for mass-consumption of biodiesel is critical. This is where algae comes into play.

Firstly it can be grown anywhere – in deserts, from salt water and even out of sewage and other waste-water (though the water would need to go through a treatment process so as not to contaminate the algae). All it needs is sunlight and water (though not fresh water like bitumen extraction) to grow. Better yet, it naturally utilizes carbon dioxide (CO2) through photosynthesis, and essentially diverts it from the atmosphere.

If we could begin this process by setting up algae around CO2 emitting plants (like in the oil sands), it could begin the process of reducing our carbon footprint while creating the necessary fuel for algae to grow at its best.

In 1978 gas prices were on the rise, which prompted U.S. President Jimmy Carter to commission a study into alternative fuel sources. The study, called the Aquatic Species Program (ASP) lasted 18 years and specifically focused on algae as potential transportation fuel. Though great strides were made over the course of the study, funding issues put an end to it.

When price-per-barrel of oil skyrocketed to over $100, global interest in algae was reignited with much research currently being conducted mainly in the private sector.

In 2010, the Canadian government provided $5 million through the National Bioproducts Program for the production of fuels from algae grown in Nova Scotia.

But we have to do better than this. More money, preferably from profit-rich oil extraction needs to be poured into this emerging industry so we do not have a gap (which could potentially devastate the modern world) between when oil runs out, and we are ready to utilize an alternative fuel.

Because although the potential is there, there are kinks that need to be worked out, which require money, manpower and time. Although it is certainly disheartening that the aforementioned factors could have been jump-started 118 years ago, with a little foresight.

It was found by the United States Department of Energy that, depending on algae yield, in the United States the land required for a complete shift from petroleum fuel to algae fuel would require land somewhere between the size of the state of Maryland and the state of Georgia, which would be an absolute maximum size of 152,000 square kilometres.

Look at a U.S. map; that is not a lot of space. For Canada, it would be even smaller as our population is significantly lower than that of the United States. Oil deposits in Alberta alone cover 140,000 square kilometres.

It is believed that most of the oil that can be extracted from the earth has already been discovered. A frightening study published by Environmental Science and Technology (a widely cited research journal) in 2010 looked at rate of production and ever-growing consumption, and predicted that oil could be depleted by 2041. Furthering that, it also predicted, based on stock-market investment of renewable energy compared to oil, that a viable alternative fuel would not be ready for consumption for potentially another 100 years following that.

This is unacceptable. But even if the study is wrong, and we have 150 more years of utilizing fossil fuels to get around, the fact is that one day, we will run of oil. Then what?

Shifting from fossil fuels to biodiesel is necessary.

Research and a transition into renewable fuels is absolutely crucial to continued extraction of oil. NOW is the time to come up with a comprehensive plan in partnership with other countries that utilize fossil fuels for the functioning of society. NOW is the time to mark the earliest time in our calendar when the oil may run out and ensure that we are prepared. NOW is the time to begin the transition. NOW is the time for vehicle manufacturers to work with biodiesel researchers and scientists, with governmental mandates to create biodiesel-friendly vehicles. Though as it even stands right now, vehicles that take diesel can run on biodiesel with a few minor adjustments.

Because amongst many, many other things, we depend on fuel to get our food to us, and it is as simple as WE NEED FOOD TO SURVIVE.

So here is my official suggestion.

Take a percentage of oil profits and invest them into researching how this can work in the most cost-effective, environmentally-friendly way (emissions vary depending on the method of algae growth, though a U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture study conducted in 1998 found biodiesel reduces net CO2 emissions by 78 per cent compared to petro-diesel.)

Grow algae around CO2 emitting plants to help divert it from the atmosphere.

Prolong the time we run out of oil by creating a hybrid of petro and bio diesel. This will both reduce our carbon footprint and allow more time and investment into research.

Finally ensure, ensure, ensure that by the time we run out of oil, we have transitioned to the full capability of using biodiesel as an alternative source of fuel.

It will take a consorted effort from investors, government, industry, and also individual awareness turning into action. But we must begin aggressively pursuing this shift right now. We can still reap the benefits of the oil industry, but it is paramount that our thinking extend beyond our individual lifetimes.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 August 2011 00:06