Algae as fuel source

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Scientists around the world are racing to turn algae into a commercially viable energy source. Algae oil can be converted into bio-diesel by using the same process that turns vegetable oils into bio-diesel.


Why should I be aware of this?

  • The production cost can be reduced as algae grow much faster and in less space than conventional energy crops. An acre of corn can produce about 20 gallons of oil per year, whereas algae have the possibility of producing 15,000 gallons per acre.
  • An algae farm could be located almost anywhere. It would not require converting cropland from food production to energy production. It could use sea water and could consume pollutants from sewage and power plants.

All about algae as fuel source

Algae are among the fastest growing plants in the world, and about 50 percent of their weight is oil. That lipid oil can be used to make biodiesel for cars, trucks, and airplanes.

Using algae as an alternative fuel is not a new idea. The U.S. Department of Energy studied it for about 18 years, from 1978 to 1996 after which they decided that algae oil could never compete economically with fossil fuels. The price of a barrel of oil in 1996 was about $20 bucks.

Earlier experiments

US Government scientists experimented with algae in open ponds in California, Hawaii, and in Roswell, New Mexico. But that required a lot of land, with inherent problems of evaporation and contamination from other plant species and various flying and swimming critters.

Focus then switched from algae research to cellulosic ethanol. That's ethanol made from plants like switchgrass and plant stover -- the leaves and stalks left after a harvest -- but not edible crops such as corn and soybeans.

Does not compete with food crops

Though corn and soybeans are widely used in the production of bio-fuels, this has many problems and is criticized by many third world countries, because these crops are food crops. Fertile land is needed for these crops, and fertile land is in short supply around the world. Algae can be grown almost anywhere, even on sewage or salt water, and does not require fertile land or food crops.

Algae contain so much of natural fatty oils that they don’t need much refining to power cars and jets. The main problem is making the venture cost-effective. The process has been tried only on a small scale as large -scale cultivation takes place in huge metal tanks or open ponds. The pond method would require 30 million square acres—an area equal to the size of South Carolina—to grow enough algae to satisfy the U.S.’s transportation needs, according to a 2004 University of New Hampshire study.

The benefits

Though algae-fuel is still in the research and development stages, there already appears to be several benefits over fuel obtained from corn or soybeans.

  • In the US of the 434 million acres of cropland is available. Out of that 95 million acres is enough to produce biodiesel to “replace all petroleum-based transportation fuel in the U.S. And algae can be grown in the arid and infertile land of the American desert.
  • Algae will not compete with land used to grow food and the algal farm has a very low environmental impact in comparison to crops that are grown for bio-diesel.
  • One acre of algae will produce between 5,000 and 20,000 gallons of oil that can be turned into bio-diesel.
  • Algae needs carbon dioxide to grow. By placing algae reactors next to power plants and other factories, the reactors will get the carbon dioxide they need while reducing the emissions of the factory.


  • There are about 65,000 known algae species, with perhaps hundreds of thousands more still to be identified.
  • One species may be best suited for jet fuel, while the oil content of another may be more efficient for truck diesel.
  • Where traditional bio fuel crops require regular irrigation of clean water algae can flourish in salt water or public waste water. [1]

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Additional information


  • Algae Emerges as a Potential Fuel Source
  • Algae: 'The ultimate in renewable energy'
  • Green Crude