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Oil from Algae? It's Possible.

Narsi Santhanam - Oil from Algae
May 10th, 2007

Anyone familiar with the field of alternative energy (and that anyone is practically every one these days!) knows that there is no silver bullet. For every positive aspect of a specific alternative energy domain, there appears to be at least one negative aspect.

Examples: (1) Solar energy: available in plenty, all around us and free, but how does one get a higher power density? (2) Wind energy: similar to solar energy available in plenty all around us, but presents problems with continuous availability among others, (3) Hydrogen energy appears to be simple and clean but how on earth does one store it in a safe and efficient manner? Such discussions go on for each and every alternative source of energy being explored.

As a result, a growing consensus amongst the energy industry experts is that rather than focusing on one avenue of alternative energy, perhaps it is a combination of alternative energy avenues that should be considered to provide a sustainable solution.

Even if one were to agree to this rather sensible consensus, it still is imperative that there are 2-3 main sources of alternative energy that can satisfy a large percentage of our energy needs – as against an array of 10 different sources. One might ask why we cannot have ten different sources of energy to meet all our energy needs. We can have - and even today, we have a multitude of diverse energy sources - but in order for the energy industry to obtain standardisations and consequent economies of scale, the industry will have to rely on a few dominant alternative energy sources. A whole range of energy sources will likely co-exist, but it will likely be 2-3 sources that will supply a very large percentage of our future energy needs. This is just another manifestation of the 80-20 rule that appears to govern most phenomena around us!

That leaves us with the question: So which are these 2-3 key alternative energy sources?

While a number of eminent and brilliant professionals are putting their heads together to come up with all kinds of ingenuous sources, it appears that oil (in the form of Biodiesel primarily) derived from algae could be one of them.

Why is this so?

Algae as a feedstock appear to have many advantages relative to other bio-feedstocks:

(1) They can grow in many different areas, even in areas far from seas, in deserts and even in snow (most other oil crops need specific climatic conditions for their growth)

(2) Their yields are substantially higher than those for traditional oil crops - many oil crops cannot even theoretically replace petro-diesel or gasoline because that would require almost all the world’s cultivable land to be dedicated to produce biofuels alone (so hello, what do we eat?)

(3) Algae also present an interesting possibility of being grown right next to pollutants creating industries (such as coal-based power plants), with the CO2 from the industries used to grow the algae - an extention of this concept is to cultivate algae in sewages! A couple of commercial ventures (some in the US and one in New Zealand) are experimenting with methods such as these.

(4) And algae have a bit of history too – oil was originally formed from the millions of years’ of nature’s work on algae! Yes, the oil we are using today as fossil fuel was originally formed from the algal masses.

And lest one just shrugs his shoulders and thinks, "they are just algae," it is probably worth pointing out that algae - and not humans - are perhaps the most important living beings on earth! Why? For the simple reason that algae contribute over 70% of all oxygen in the atmosphere, some estimates put the % even higher. If it were not for the humble algae, it is unlikely that earth would be able to support the billions of teeming human beings today. This bit of information about algae is not just trivia but it once again signifies their abundance and hence also their potential to produce abundant amounts of oil.

If algae appear so promising, how come the world's energy majors are not pumping billions of dollars to get oil from algae?

Well, algae do not present a "silver bullet" solution either, at least not at the moment. There are serious bottlenecks to be overcome before oil from algae can be proved an economical, sustainable, large-scale solution for our fuel and energy needs. Some of these bottlenecks have to do with lack of capabilities to cultivate and harvest optimal strains of algae in a cost-effective manner, and cost-effective methods of extracting the oil from algae.

While these appear to be simple problems on paper, they unfortunately are not in reality. In order for these bottlenecks to be ovecome, a significant amount of research needs to be undertaken, possibly with a lot more attention from the major governments and corporates of the world.

But surprisingly - and for reasons not really clear - there are no signs of such massive amounts of research being done in the field of oil from algae. For sure, research is being conducted by some brilliant and devoted scientists, but we fear that these isolated efforts will not be enough.

With all of us now keen on doing our best to find out those alternative energy avenues that will make or break civilization fifty years from now, it is imperative that individuals and professionals try to convince their goverments, corporates & scientific research institutions of the need to put in more research into exploring algae as a feedstock for oil.

One may ask: "Isn't it a possibility that the research could prove that algae are not a suitable feedstock for our future oil needs?" Indeed, it is indeed a possibility, but it is much less of a possibility that soy or palm or corn powering our future. Or hydrogen for that matter.

Editorial prepared by: Narsi Santhanam

Web site:

Title: Oilgae & Energy from Algae

Site description: Oilgae provides resources and inputs for those doing research on deriving oil and Biodiesel from algae, and is evolving into a community for all the oil from algae enthusiasts and professionals.

Narsi Santhanam
May 10th, 2007

Oilgae @ - Oil from Algae

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