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Debate: Algae biofuel

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What are the pros and cons of algae biofuel?

Background and context

Algae biofuel is a fuel derived from the process of growing algae and decomposing it to extract oils from it that can be burned for energy. It involves the same basic principles underlying all other biofuels, but uses algae instead of corn, wood, sugar, or soy beans to produce the fuel. Algae biofuel is envisioned principally as a fuel for vehicles and a possible replacement for gasoline.
With oil prices rising since 2003 and difficulties with other biofuels, interest in algae biofuel has increased. Venture capital began to flood the emerging algae biofuel industry in 2008. Sapphire Energy, an algae biofuel start-up, has raised over $100 million in venture capital, including from Bill Gates' investment firm Cascade Investment. Recent difficulties, however, with once-lauded alternative energy sources, including hydrogen fuel-cells and corn ethanol, has caused many to question moving forward too quickly with algae biofuel before fully analyzing the pros and cons. The advantages and disadvantages of algae biofuel are framed by some of the following questions. Is algae biofuel a valuable tool in fighting global warming? Is it carbon neutral, emitting only CO2 that it absorbs first during growth? Can it cut emissions? Does algae biofuel yield substantial energy relative to the energy inputs involved in its production? Is algae biofuel good for local environments? Does it require too much water? Does it require too much land and incentivize deforestation as a result? Is biofuel commercially viable? Is it price competitive with oil, other biofuels, and other sources of energy such as solar panels? Should algae be used to filter C02 emissions from coal plants - a form of "clean coal". How does it compare overall to other alternative sources of energy, particularly other biofuels and solar power? Are electric cars and electricity-generation superior to algae biofuel and all forms of fuel for vehicles and transportation? Should we generally be moving onto the electric grid and away from liquid fuels for vehicles?

Contents

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Emissions: Is algae biofuel good for combating global warming?

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Yes

  • Algae biofuel is carbon neutral; only emits C02 that it absorbs. Growing algae absorbs C02 in the process of photosynthesis. It is a carbon sink. This is why, when algae biofuels are burned and emit some C02, the emission balance is C02 neutral; it emits only C02 it previously absorbed, adding no new C02 into the atmosphere. Because it is carbon neutral in this way, it is a renewable energy source that can be produced and burned for energy sustainably.


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No

  • Indusrial algae depends on dense C02 from coal "Algae biofuel mania". Stockhouse. 11 June 2008 - "Algae can obtain carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the amounts present are insufficient to promote rapid growth. That requires something like smokestack effluents containing more than 10% CO2, and in fact some of the earliest attempts to grow algae as a fuel source were predicated upon the development of pervasive industrial carbon dioxide capture. That's not happening, and unless it does, real mass production of algal biofuel is scarcely possible."


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Economics: Is algae biofuel economically viable?

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Yes

  • Algae biofuel can become price competitive with oil Jennifer Holmgren, director of the renewable fuels unit of UOP LLC, an energy subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc said, "If you can get algae oils down below $2 a gallon, then you'll be where you need to be. And there's a lot of people who think you can."[2]
  • There are no soil requirements for algae biofuel. Biofuels that are created from land-plants all have specific soil-quality requirements. If soil in an area does not meet the specific nutrient requirements of a biofuel plant-type, that plant cannot be built and used to produce the biofuel in the land-area. Algae, because it grows in water (of almost any kind and quality), is not limited by soil-quality.
  • Algae biofuel does not damage food prices Sapphire Energy, a algae biofuel start-up says, "Critically important, there is no ‘food vs. fuel’ tradeoff. The process is not dependent on crops or valuable farmland. It is highly water efficient, delivering 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than cropland biofuels."[3]
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No

  • Hi-tech algae biofuel plants require too much energy/money "Leave the algae alone". Low-tech Magazine. 4 Apr. 2008 - "you have to build an array of structures [in algae biofuel bioreactors]: the glass or polycarbonate containers themselves, the metal frames, the greenhouses. The production of all this equipment might consume less energy (and money) per square meter than the production of solar panels, but you need much more of it because algae are less efficient than solar plants. Moreover, in closed bioreactors, CO2 has to be added artificially. This is done by bubbling air through the water by means of gas pumps, a process that needs energy. Furthermore, the containers have to be emptied and cleaned regularly, they have to be sterilized, the water has to be kept at a certain temperature, and minerals have to be added continuously (because also here, just as with cellulosic ethanol, "waste" materials are being removed). All these processes demand extra energy."
  • Algae pools can become contaminated and less efficient "Leave the algae alone". Low-tech Magazine. 4 Apr. 2008 - "low-tech methods (comparable to growing corn, soy or palm trees to make ethanol or biodiesel) are being left behind for more efficient ones, using closed glass or polycarbonate bioreactors and an array of high-tech equipment to keep the algae in optimal conditions. Even though some companies still prefer open ponds (like the PetroSun plant that started production last week), this method has serious drawbacks. The main problem is contamination by other kinds of algae and organisms, which can replace the energy producing algae in no time."
  • Industrial algae biofuel requires too many nutrients "Algae biofuel mania". Stockhouse. 11 June 2008 - "I might point out that some of the more vociferous algae pimps are suggesting that algae need merely be introduced into a properly designed, water filled bioreactor and the organisms will multiply until the unit is packed to overflowing with tons upon tons of green biomass, all in the space of days. This is patent nonsense. Algae can grow quickly, but only in the presence of sufficient nutrients. Just like any other organism, algae require carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and various other minerals."


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Land-use: Does algae biofuel take up too much land?

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Yes

  • Algae yields much more biofuel per acre than other fuels Compared with second generation biofuels, algae are high-yield high-cost (30 times more energy per acre than terrestrial crops) feedstocks to produce biofuels. Since the whole organism uses sunlight to produce lipids, or oil, algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two-car garage than an entire football field of soybeans.


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No


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Ecosystems: Is algae biofuel generally good for ecosystems?

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Yes

  • Algae biofuel is biodegradable. One advantage of many biofuels over most other fuel types is that they are biodegradable, and so relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.
  • Algae biofuel is a renewable resource. Glen Kertz, president and CEO of Valcent Products, told CNN while conducting a tour of his algae greenhouse on the outskirts of El Paso - "Algae is the ultimate in renewable energy."


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No

This is expensive, and can also mean that new algae biofuel plants and ponds may alter local ecosystems.


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Water-use: Does algae biofuel use too much water?

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Yes

  • Algal fuels do not impact fresh water resources. Algae can be grown in the ocean, freshwater, and wastewater and sewage. There is really no limit to the types of water in which algae can survive and thrive, and so where it can be produced into biofuel.
  • Algae biofuel can grow in salt water, freshwater or contaminated water. There is no limit to the kinds of water where algae can be grown and used in producing biofuel. This contrasts sharply with many crops and fuels where much more specific location factors are at play. That algae biofuel can be produced in more places gives it an sot competitive edge over other fuels.


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No

  • Algae biofuel requires substantial quantities of water Algae requires pools of standing water - not just water in the soil - to grow. It, therefore, requires substantial quantities of water. It take a significant quantity of energy to get that water to algae biofuel farms. It also diverts water from other important resources, such as irrigation for food farms and for direct human consumption. "Leave the algae alone". Low-tech Magazine. 4 Apr. 2008 - "Algae need a lot of sunshine and huge amounts of water - how do you get seawater to the desert?"


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Clean coal: Is the use of algae to clean coal a good idea?

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Yes

  • Algae can filter C02 from coal and be used for biofuel Power plants that emit large quantities of C02 can be fitted with algae biofuel systems, in which waste C02 is used by algae in the process of photosynthesis, creating as a result a useful biofuel. Lisa Colosi, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Virginia, supports this notion, arguing, "the main principle of industrial ecology is to try and use our waste products to produce something of value."[4]


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No


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Vs. solar: Is algae biofuel superior to solar power?

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Yes


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No

  • Solar power is greener than algae biofuel "Leave the algae alone". Low-tech Magazine. 4 Apr. 2008 - "The water issue is not the only 'detail' that threatens the energy efficiency of algal fuel. Compared to other plants, the photosynthetic efficiency of algae is high – almost 3 times that of sugar cane for instance. Compared to solar energy, however, the energy efficiency of algae is very low – around 1 percent, while solar panels have an efficiency of at least 10 percent, and solar thermal gets 20 percent and more. So why would we choose algae over solar energy?"


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Vs. other biofuels: Is algae biofuel superior to other biofuels?

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Yes

  • Algae biofuel requires less land; good for the environment The United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers), which is a few thousand square miles larger than Maryland, or 1.3 Belgiums. This is less than 1/7th the area of corn harvested in the United States in 2000.
  • Algae does not require fresh water like other biofuel crops.


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No

  • Algae biofuel will fail like other biofuels "Leave the algae alone". Low-tech Magazine. 4 Apr. 2008 - "While the first generation of biofuels is wreaking havoc on the environment and the food markets, the second generation is getting ready to make things only worse. Behind the scenes, scientists are already working on the third generation, whatever that may be. In five or ten years time, when it becomes clear that algal fuel is devouring our water and energy resources and cellulosic ethanol is mining our agricultural soils, we will be promised that the third generation will again solve all the problems of the previous generation."


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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No


See also

External links

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