In our quest to move away from fossil fuels and the potential damage they may cause to the environment, a number of renewable resources are being evaluated. One of those resources just happens to be algae oil. This source of energy, which is distilled from algae that grows on top of water surfaces, can potentially replace a number of petroleum products in the future without as much environmental impact.
There are several benefits of algae oil to consider, but certain disadvantages also present themselves with this product. Let’s take a look at some of the key points which should be considered as this technology is pursued.
What Are the Pros of Algae Oil?
1. It is essentially a carbon neutral fuel.
Algae oil does emit carbon when it is burned. There’s no getting around that fact. What this energy resource does, however, is use carbon as fuel while it is growing. This means when the oil is burned off for fueling needs, it is depositing about the same amount of carbon back into the atmosphere as was originally taken out of it. If everyone were burning algae oil and production levels could be maintained to provide this fuel, much of our annual pollution rates would be completed eliminated immediately.
2. It is a highly efficient renewable fuel.
The amount of energy that algae oil is able to produce is much greater per unit than any other biologically based fuel we know of today. Some industry claims say that bio-fuels that are based on algae products are more than 90% as efficient as standard fuels today. If true and if it can be applied to various sectors of the transportation network, then up to 70% of the fossil fuels that are consumed every day in the US can be taken out of the supply chain and used for other needs.
3. It can be grown virtually anywhere.
One of the greatest advantages of algae fuels is the fact that it can be grown on land or in water virtually anywhere. Algae can even be grown in areas that do not normally sustain any other agricultural offering. This makes it possible for virtually anyone to take a parcel of land, convert it to algae production, and have a commercially viable power plant alternative that is completely renewable.
4. Production levels are already becoming scalable.
The US Navy purchases more than 100k gallons of algae oil every year already. With more than 5 decades of research behind it, the production levels for this renewable energy resource are continuing to rise as demand for it rises as well. Up to 20% of the current oil imports the US is purchasing every day could be replaced with algae oil under the right circumstances, so further study of the viability of scalability would be highly beneficial.
5. Algae oil can be used in today’s products.
Algae oil products are comparable to ethanol. This means they can be used in virtually every vehicle, manufacturing industry, and other mechanical needs right now without any need for a conversion. You could fill up your fuel tank today with gasoline created from algae oil if there was access to it. Even jet fuel can be created from algae oil. Considering up to 10k gallons of oil can be produced per acre, that’s a lot of fuel that can be created from a 100% renewable resource.
6. It can be turned into byproducts.
Once the oil has been extracted, algae can be used for food products, fertilizers, and even put into an energy drink.
What Are the Cons of Algae Oil?
1. Large carbon emissions are required to start an algae oil project.
It takes a lot of manufacturing to get an algae oil farm up and running. Plastics and other components all come from fossil fuels, which means there is an initial carbon deposit that must go into the atmosphere in order for it to become operational. This means that even though the ongoing fuels produced are carbon neutral, that initial deposit can never really be reduced.
2. There are issues with the cold when it comes to the consistency of the oil.
The one problem that hasn’t been worked around as of yet is the consistency of the algae oil. When the weather turns colder, algae oil tends to get thicker than other forms of oil. When used as fuel or as a lubricant, this makes it possible for the oil to prevent an engine from starting or it may cause breakdowns simply because of its thick viscosity.
3. Genetic engineering may have radical consequences.
There are some researchers looking into algae oil that are attempting to develop certain strains that have more oil production value than others. This may become problematic should these engineered strains interact or mingle with the wild strains of algae that exist today. Algae is already taking over areas of the world and creating dead zones on its own. A virulent man-made strain could enhance the problem to the Nth degree.
4. It requires phosphorus for growth.
Algae growth is dependent on fertilizers, which means the fertilizer used is carbon dependent. Although wastewater and CO2 in the air can be used as growing fuel, algae tends to do much better when it has phosphorus to consume as well. This type of fertilizer is becoming very difficult to locate on the open market, which means growth limitations are naturally in effect because of the access barrier.
5. Even with large scale production, the benefits are still minor compared to our usage.
In the US, 18 million barrels of oil are consumed every day. 7 out of 10 of those barrels is used for transportation network needs. Considering the top estimates provided for algae oil today, by 2035 we could replace just 1.5 million barrels of oil every day. That’s enough to remove 160+ million metric tons of emissions from the atmosphere, but essentially means that we’ll still be using over 15 million barrels per day of fossil fuels.
6. It’s expensive.
Right now it is cheaper to produce a barrel of oil from the ground than it is to create a barrel of algae oil from organic materials. Algae can also be a food source, which means growing it in an outdoor location has certain unique risks that other energy production alternatives don’t face. It is also expensive just because it’s still in its early stages of commercial development. Will this disadvantage resolve over time? There’s no real answer to that right now.
The pros and cons of algae oil show that there is a lot of potential for this renewable energy product. If managed properly, it could become the fuel of the future. As long as the disadvantages are properly managed, this fuel could reasonably adapt to the world’s energy infrastructure in no time at all.