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July 18, 2009 @ 4:38 pm
An Algae Powered Future?

corn_vs_algae

Should pool owners everywhere forego chlorine to promote algal growth and sell the by-product? Probably not, but this is an interesting concept I’m going to tell you about. First, you should know I’ve been very skeptical of “bio-fuels” because corn-based ethanol promotion has been such a terrible policy. Let me know count the ways:

  1. Extremely inefficient source of energy – 1 acre of corn yields just 250 gallons of ethanol and it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to equal the energy output from 1 gallon of gasoline
  2. Resource requirements – irrigated corn requires 785 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol and production uses 1-2 more gallons of water per gallon of fuel then petroleum refining. Additionally, it takes 140 gallons of fossil fuel to plant, grow and harvest just an acre of corn
  3. Unintended impact on food price inflation – historically, corn has been one of the cheapest foods to grow; as a result it is the primary animal feed crop and a reduction in supply increases prices throughout the food chain 

The first two negative effects result from the resource intensive nature of bio-fuel production. When producing a fossil fuel substitute is so inefficient that it strains valuable resources and creates such a large carbon footprint, how are we benefiting? A 2008 paper in Science Express analyzed greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land-use changes brought about by increased corn ethanol production and found emissions were 100% higher relative to gasoline. Most proponents of ethanol only talk about the fact that tailpipe emissions are reduced by 20% when using ethanol.

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Finally, skyrocketing demand for corn is great news for the important political constituency of Midwestern farmers but it is terrible news for the supply chain to your dinner plate: diverting corn for ethanol leaves less for people and animals, causing the price to go up. This forces packaged/processed food producers to increase prices because so many of their products contain high fructose corn syrup (even though it is quite unhealthy – do you really need more sugar?). Meanwhile animals are still eating increasingly expensive corn causing meat prices to go up. To increase crop yields, more plant food, fertilizer, etc. is needed which increases the production costs of every other crop and they become more expensive as well…it’s a vicious cycle. Since we don’t eat algae, it may be a much better source for bio-fuel.

ExxonMobil in fact, is betting on a $600 million partnership with a biotech company called Synthetic Genomics to commercialize algae based fuels. The Chief Scientist at Synthetic Genomics is J. Craig Venter (he of Human Genome Project fame). There a number why I can think these fuels are more potentially useful than ethanol. First and foremost, algae could yield more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre – about ten times than an equivalent corn planting. Algae are much less resource intensive as well: they can grow in the worst kinds of water, such as brackish ponds and seawater. Biologically, algae utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce fuel, both of which are in ample supply. Lastly, Venter is engineering the algae to absorb even more carbon-dioxide then it otherwise would. This has twin benefits: higher fuel yield and a reduction in greenhouse gases. This will be an interesting story to follow.

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