During his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said:
“With only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, oil isn’t enough. This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy. A strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper, and full of new jobs.”
Mitt Romney agrees:
“An affordable reliable energy supply is fundamental to a prosperous and growing economy.”
Biofuel can be an alternative energy source, but its benefits are contested. In recent years, there has been a growing understanding among scientists and politicians that rapid economic development, increasing global population, and rising global living standards will eventually lead to the depletion of our primary energy source, fossil fuels.
Another result of the increased burning of fossil fuels is a predicted rise of over 30% in greenhouse gas (CO2) levels in the atmosphere which has made the need to find an alternative energy source increasingly urgent.
Geoscientist and Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas board member, J. David Hughes, says, this will be no easy task given the United State’s massive annual oil consumption of seven billion barrels a year and with the growing demands of developing nations like China and India.
Today, a large amount of the biofuels produced come from food crops including soybean, coconut, corn, and palm. However, the increased production of biofuels from food crops has brought up ethical concerns regarding harming lower income populations by diverting productive land and resources away from edible crops and thereby increasing food prices, according to Denis J. Murphy, head of the biotechnology unit at the University of Glamorgan, Wales.
It has also been recognized that biofuel production in industrialized countries may be generating more CO2 emissions than what is being captured. To compete in the biofuel production market, some developing countries have converted pristine habitats into land that is viable for biofuel production, adds Murphy in Technological Innovations in Major World Oil Crops, an academic journal on the topic. This has led to environmental degradation and habitat loss for species like the orangutan in parts of the Far East.
Thom Hartman, a political commentator, poses the question: how do we replace the energy from a million years of ancient sunlight, which we currently burn each year, without destroying pristine habitats or driving up food costs?
A group of scientists at the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology and the Division of Biological Sciences says micro-algae may be a significant contributor as an alternative biomass source for biofuels. Algae can produce biomass rapidly with some species doubling in six hours under optimal growth conditions. They all have the ability to produce energy-rich oils and some accumulate high levels of oil in their total dry biomass.
Most micro-algal species have the potential of producing significantly higher lipid to land area ratios than terrestrial plants and can grow in brackish (otherwise unusable) water. Algae are also efficient at CO2 fixation and account for 40 percent of global carbon capture and fixation. The goal of large-scale production of biofuels from micro-algae is to establish crop production methods and infrastructure that maximize lipid production while maintaining it as an economically viable energy source.
Currently, there are two main systems being investigated for maximizing lipid production from micro-algae. These are monocultures, single algal species, grown in closed photo-bioreactors and open pond systems. Some challenges associated with production in open pond systems include obtaining a sufficient amount of flat land close to water and nutrient sources. Production and processing, such as sufficient mixing to ensure the algae receive uniform exposure to sunlight and the process of harvesting lipids and biomass, can quickly become energy intensive and therefore expensive processes.
Sapphire Energy has made significant progress in overcoming some of these challenges. They make claims to having the largest photosynthetic, fully integrated, algae-to-energy testing facility in the world, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They may have found ideal conditions for their 22 acre “green crude” production facility.
At this location they are utilizing land that has been un-farmable for forty years and take advantage of the local source of underground brackish water.
Will there be enough resources available, like those found by Sapphire Energy, for other companies to compete in algae production and make a significant contribution as an alternative to fossil fuels? Or, can the support from politicians and the majority of citizens provide enough financial support and resources to make this possible?
One thing is certain: currently there is no one solution to replace the world’s, let alone the United States’ massive consumption of fossil fuel.