Ways to Use Algae for Fuel

A Kashmiri boatman removes algae from Dal Lake on March 31, 2012 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India.

Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

If you were to dream up a list of the all-time grossest possible experiences, swimming in an algae-gunked pool or pond would have to be pretty close to the top. An algal body of water is slimy, yucky, and it could obscure hungry things in the water that might like to take a bite out of you. Putting aside algae's highly important role in the food chain for just a moment, the stuff is plain nasty.

The phrase "lower than pond scum" has endured as an effective insult all these years for good reason.

But we're not here to put these micro-organisms ("algae" is the plural form of the singular alga) down any lower than their already humble position on the evolutionary chart. In fact, we're here to exalt them. That's because these critters could represent a significant breakthrough in helping the world cut its dependence on fossilized oil. As you may be aware, we can already use algae as a form of biofuel today.

What might not be common knowledge -- yet -- is the many different ways in which algae can serve as a fuel source. Sure it can run in a semi-truck in the form of biodiesel. But would you believe it could power the navy's next generation of fighting ships? Or that an airline flight you take in the near future may come courtesy of the oil derived from our single-celled pals?

A transition from traditional petroleum products to algae-based biofuels would bring with it an important side benefit, too: Algae provide what is known as a carbon sink. While alive, they take in carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases behind climate change, and release oxygen.

The technology to make all this happen isn't perfect. With methods available as recently as 2012, attaining cheap algae fuel production has been more slippery than the bottom of a dirty swimming pool.

But researchers all over the globe say they're zeroing in on methods to make algae easier and more productive to grow for fuel. If they're right, that means you can probably expect algae to play a direct role (eventually) in getting you from point A to point B.