Toxic Blooms Have Energy Potential

Algae in Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio.   Photo: DRONEBASE, via AP and The Boston Globe

We often write about the damaging impacts of algal blooms found in the ocean and in lakes that are fouling beaches and coastal waters, not to mention drinking water in certain areas (see yesterday’s story on how it is poisonous to dogs).  But algae have the potential to be used as fuel for everything from delivery trucks to warplanes and ships, according to author Ruth Kassinger in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe

Why This Matters: Biofuels are now made mostly from corn – but the corn is grown in the Midwest where fertilizers and nitrogen injected into the soil are contributing to the algal dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other waterways. If we could use these algae to replace some of the biofuels made from corn that would have a double environmental benefit.

Biofuels of the Future

  • Biofuels became economically viable in 2005, according to Kassinger, when fossil fuel prices rose to more than $150 per barrel.
  • Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus required the Navy to develop an algae-based biofuel alternative for a Navy demonstration project to reduce the fuel costs born by the fleet’s planes and ships.
  • But low prices for oil made it hard for algae-based biofuels to take off because of the cost to produce it.
  • Now new technologies are now making it much more economical to filter massive quantities of water and liquefy algae biomass more quickly and cheaply than before.
  • The big market for biofuels in the future is likely to be aircraft since electric versions of cars and trucks are growing and it is not possible to fuel airplanes that way.
  • Air travel is the seventh-largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions globally.

Algae Could Replace Plastic Too 

  • Plastics are also fossil-based, but may also be replaced by algae-based products – a company called Algix is making plastic from pond scum.
  • In 2018, the company turned 12 million pounds of algae from ponds into shoe soles. 

Algae pull carbon down from the atmosphere into the water it is a carbon sink. If put to use, it could be part of our climate solutions, according to Kassinger.

To Go Deeper:  If you want to learn more about the potential of slime, click here for Kassinger’s book.  Or you could try one of her recipes for treats like seaweed scones from algae.

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