The buzz about algae is that it's an ideal source of renewable energy and could be the ultimate green fuel. Research by the U.S. government and companies like Boeing, Chevron and Honeywell are developing ways to make algaculture an economically viable foundation for a new generation of energy [source: Chemeurope.com]. Part of the attraction is the range of fuels into which algae can be converted.
- Biodiesel is the simplest way to tap algae's energy potential. Like any vegetable oil, oil from algae can be chemically transformed into biodiesel fuel. Compared to land plants like soybeans or corn, algae use less land and fresh water, grow faster and have higher concentrations of oil.
- Refined transportation fuels are another area of promise for algae. Some algae produce oil that can be refined into gasoline or even jet fuel, and without the sulfur and nitrogen compounds in petroleum. Manufacturers can process it in the same refineries as petroleum-based stock. In 2011, the first commercial jet flight powered by algal oil flew from Houston to Chicago [source: Fehrenbacher].
- Ethanol, which is commonly added to gasoline, can be produced from algae as well as land plants. Besides oil, algae are made up from carbohydrates and cellulose walls. These materials can be fermented by yeast into ethanol or grain alcohol.
- Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is produced when bacteria digest algae. A clean and versatile fuel, methane can be used to produce electricity or power vehicles. It represents another biofuel option for algae.
Algae actually thrive on polluted water, which means they can be used for waste water treatment. Algae turn pollutants from municipal, industrial or agricultural waste water into usable byproducts like animal feed or biomass for conversion to energy. Algae naturally accumulate heavy metals for removal or recycling.
Because carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, is algae's favorite food, the plants can be used for carbon capture. They convert the gas to organic carbon compounds at a far faster clip than land plants. One pound (453.6 grams) of algae consumes 2 pounds (907.2 grams) of carbon dioxide [source: Edwards]. Feed the waste gas of a coal-burning power plant into a mass of algae, and they literally eat it up. Waste gas can be stored for permanent elimination from the atmosphere, or converted to fuel to cut the use of fossil fuels.
Algae continue play a role as human food and supplements. People eat seaweed in salads and sushi and take supplements made from the microalgae spirulina. Algae provide complete protein, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins. Carageen is extracted from red seaweed known as Irish moss and used as a thickener.
Algae are also being used as feed for cattle and for marine animals like shrimp and shellfish. The biomass left after algae have been processed can sometimes be applied as organic fertilizer to farm fields. Algae find minor uses in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals as well.
Research into growing, harvesting and processing algae is advancing on many fronts. Given its immense value, there's no doubt that this simple "weed" will play a growing role in the future of our society and economy.