If you thought swimming in algae-teeming waters was gross, wait until you hear this use for algae "fuel." As people food.
It sounds like (and, well, has been) something you'd see in science fiction. Just one example: The fictional crew of the Battlestar Galactica found salvation and survival on the Algae Planet when their fleet's conventional food supply was discovered to be contaminated. In the television space drama, the crew made no bones about how distasteful they found their emergency food source. But when you're starving, one of the first things you discard is a discriminating palate.
In reality, people already do eat algae on a fairly regular basis. Seaweed, a type of algae, is a popular dish in eastern Asian countries and has been winning converts worldwide.
Spirulina, a blue-green algae, is widely used as a dietary supplement for its high protein content and antioxidants, which protect cells from damage. When bought over the counter, people usually take it in pill or powder form. But there are some folks who grow it in tanks right at home and eat it fresh.
A number of algae development companies have taken severe lumps trying to grow algae as a transportation fuel. Far more profitable: Growing it as byproducts for use in fertilizers, animal feed, and yes, foods eaten by people.
But J. Craig Venter, the man behind the mapping of the human genome and an algae-development entrepreneur, has even more ambitious plans for algae. Among his many pursuits is a quest to find the most productive genes from algae and transfer them to other crops and microbes. One possibility is "meat" developed from algae genes that can be grown in a petri dish.
To be sure, realizing many of the promised benefits of algae as a fuel will take lots of time and loads of money -- perhaps billions -- in research and development dollars. Some people think it's no longer a worthwhile pursuit. But given all the enticing ways it can be used as a fuel, it could just be a matter of time before algae's ship comes in.
Author's Note: 5 Ways to Use Algae for Fuel
Fuel from algae is an alluring concept and a difficult one. Difficult because many people absolutely hate the idea of using taxpayer money to develop it to its full potential. I see the technology as shaping up similarly to the model that built the Internet or the Global Positioning System network of satellites. Arguably, both involved high risk, unproven technology and little immediate, tangible benefit to the public in their early years of operation. They were also both heavily subsidized by the government.
Military leaders say their thirst for biofuels goes beyond any partisan or environmental agenda and is a matter of national security. If they get their way in buying biofuels such as ones based on algae, it won't be cheap to begin with. But if history is a guide, I think it will create markets that eventually bring down prices, and find a wide range of consumer applications.
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