Algae have long been considered a better alternative to oil than other natural fuel sources like soybeans, corn and wheat, primarily because algae are capable of producing a much larger yield (up to 100 times more oil per acre). While the use of these staples for fuel has had the unintended effect of driving up food prices by making the crops more scarce, algae can be harvested for oil in various bodies of water without taking up land that would otherwise be used for farming.
But is algae oil a viable alternative to crude? The short answer is yes, but algae's long-term viability depends on prices at the gas pump. As petroleum prices remain high and the algae oil cultivation, extraction and refining process becomes less costly, algae presents an increasingly viable alternative to oil as a fuel base.
Even though decades ago researchers began looking at algae as a fuel source, algae oil was until recently considered too costly to produce on a scale large enough to put a dent in national petroleum consumption. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) discontinued a program that for almost 20 years had focused on developing renewable transportation fuels from algae, finding -- as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory noted in a close-out report -- that "the high cost of algae production remains an obstacle." The DOE's most optimistic estimate set the price of a barrel of algae oil at twice that of a barrel of petroleum.
By 2008, however, crude oil costs had skyrocketed, making algae oil an attractive and not-so-costly alternative. The DOE revived the algae fuel program and has partnered with Chevron to continue research. The tables have turned to such an extent that a recent study by the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory indicates that if 5.5 percent of U.S. land area -- particularly in the Great Lakes, Southeastern seaboard and Gulf Coast -- were dedicated to algae growing, the country could use current production methods to replace as much as 17 percent of the oil that it currently imports for transportation purposes with algae oil.
As research continues, the cost of making fuel from algae is expected to drop. Researchers are working on more efficient ways both to grow algae and to extract its oil. Biodeisel is currently the most cost-effective fuel use for algae oil because the process requires less energy than converting the oil to methane, ethanol and other types of fuel. The goal is to make algae oil an economically viable alternative to petroleum in the event that crude oil prices drop.
It's not yet time to replace all the oil wells in America with algae-growing ponds, but the days of swapping black gold for green sludge aren't far off.