[ Skip Main Nav ]

Phoenix Forward

Forget corn: Algae may be the best new energy source

Blue green algae can be made into oil, methane and ethanol.

With so much attention focused on new sources of alternative energy, it’s hard to believe that some of the most practical solutions have yet to be fully realized. Until recently. Now that the Navy has run a test of biofuel made from algae, otherwise known as algal, this alternative fuel source may finally be getting the attention it deserves.

“What’s really great about algal is that it’s a carbon-neutral fuel,” says Dr. Barbara Zorn-Arnold, a research biologist and instructor for the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Phoenix Chicago Campus. “Algae absorbs carbon dioxide to grow, and when it’s turned into a fuel and burned it only emits the same amount of carbon dioxide that it took in. So it’s truly zero waste.”

Currently, biofuel made from corn is getting the most traction in the United States, but according to Zorn-Arnold, algae would be miles ahead of corn as a sustainable source for fuel.

If we replaced algal fuel with all the petroleum fuel we use in the U.S., it would only require … less than half of 1 percent of land in the U.S.

“Algae grows very quickly; there is only a two-day turnaround to harvest it,” says Zorn. “Whereas with corn, you need a whole year, and then if there is a problem with the crop you can lose an entire year of effort.”

In addition, the space needed to grow and cultivate algae is miniscule. “The Department of Energy estimated that if we replaced algal fuel with all the petroleum fuel we use in the United States, it would only require 15,000 square miles of land. And, to put that in perspective, that’s less than half of 1 percent of land in the United States, which is about 85 percent less land than we use for corn.”

Since algae is so adaptable — it grows in fresh water, saltwater, the desert and in forests — it has an enormous practical value.

“We can make algae grow anywhere, so the potential for creating a fuel from these species is global,” says Zorn-Arnold, who has worked as an ecosystem ecologist for the Chicago Botanic Gardens and as a consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Not only can algae be turned into an oil, which is chemically identical to conventional crude oil, but its other components can be extracted to make ethanol and methane, as well as food for cattle. “Algae is literally the gift that keeps on giving,” she says.

So what’s the downside? According to Zorn-Arnold, not a whole lot, other than lack of public knowledge about its potential, and the infrastructure to support production. "The problems are with our perception of alternative fuels,” says Zorn-Arnold. “People really don’t like change. We’ve become very established in our culture and in our habits.”

The Navy’s test of algal, however, will make a difference. “When you have a government agency that is seriously testing an alternative fuel source, it certainly will bring attention to it,” says Zorn-Arnold, “as well as bringing a very large potential customer to current algal biofuel market.”

Interested in furthering your education?