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To understand the need for a source of alternative energy, and the potential of algae, we have to look first at our primary fossil fuel: oil . . . petroleum . . . black gold.
Have We “Peaked Out” On Oil?
Call it what you will, oil makes our lives comfortable in many ways. However, our ability to extract oil from the earth will someday reach an end. In the 1950s Dr. M. King Hubbert believed we would reach “peak oil” by 1971. Peak oil means when the highest production possible is reached. From that point forward we will be able to extract less and less until we can draw no more from its cradle deep inside our earth. Dr. Hubbert was wrong. Since his prediction, technology has enabled us to discover oil we didn’t know was there, and to extract oil that was previously believed impossible to obtain.
As an example, Iran had estimated their “Proved Reserves” of oil to be about 58 billion barrels. By 1988 that number had increased by 62%. And in 2013 Iran’s Proved Reserves were over 155 billion barrels. This increase was in spite of the fact that Iran kept pumping and pumping oil all during those years.
Trillions of Barrels of Oil? Where?!?
Did you know that our 2011 U.S. Geological Survey stated that in just our shale, the United States has 4.285 trillion—yes, trillion, with a “T”—barrels of Oil in Place? Right now you’re probably running the question at the top of the page through your mind. With over four trillion barrels of oil in our shale alone, why do we need an alternative energy source?
There are so many conflicting opinions as to when we reach “peak oil” that it’s hardly worth talking about. No one really knows, because no one can predict what new technology will enable us to find, and extract, or how much more we will need worldwide as the developing countries increase their industrialization. Right now the world consumes over 200,000,000 gallons of petroleum every 78 minutes. That amounts to just under 4 billion gallons a day.
So . . . let’s just admit that one day oil will gasp its last breath, there will be no more. I’m pretty much a realist. That day will come and we had better be way down the line with an alternative to oil that will be both sustainable and cost effective. That won’t happen overnight. Some thought ethanol would be our prime source of alternative energy. That proved wrong on so many levels I’ll have to give it its own separate page.
Fortunately, scientists all around the world are working on what I think is extremely promising. What is it?
Biofuel Using Algae? How Is That Possible?
You guessed right. It’s biofuel from algae. Why algae? Think about it. The oil we extract from our earth now started its life as algae. Algae, living algae today, contain oil—that same oil that filled the crevices of our earth. Why not bypass the slow process of nature, and churn our living algae into Green Crude?
Algae require three main ingredients to grow: sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. They also like to have a few nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, but those three are essential. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Sunlight is abundant (at least in many places) and is a free resource. Balancing the number of hours of light, the intensity, etc. at various locations are among the variables scientists are researching.
Water is precious. That is where algae has it all over ordinary crops such as corn and soybeans. Algae to be converted to biofuel do not need fresh water. In fact, they grow in salt water like the oceans, brackish water that is salty but not quite as salty as ocean water, and the water that really makes algae thrive is wastewater. Wastewater has many nutrients that algae think are food for the gods. A side benefit of using wastewater is that after the algae have gobbled up all the gunk, the water is clean!
Carbon Dioxide was named a greenhouse gas, a pollutant, in 2009 by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Until then it was simply a necessary part of our atmosphere. However, rules and regulations spewed forth from the EPA from that time until now have cost countless sums of lost money, businesses, and jobs. Part of the regulations call for carbon capture and sequester. That is, the emissions from a plant must be captured and then sent off somewhere to be buried. This sequestering is costly, and only puts the problem off to a later time when we run out of places to sequester it. I can’t help but think of the old cliché “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s a rather short-
With algae there is a better solution. Some in Congress are trying to have carbon capture and utilization be acceptable to the EPA. Researchers are working to develop a process that will take the emissions from industrial plants and feed it to algae. They love it likes a kid loves ice cream, and the air is cleaned in the process. The ideal, if there is land available, is to place an algae farm next to an industrial plant.