Marine Microalgae for Biofuel Production: Implementation, Issues and Benefits
Author: Megan Lorino. May 25, 2019
Microalgae for use in biofuel production is a complex concept that is still being studied by the scientific community to find the best possible usage and means of production, both in cost and environmental sustainability. Algae contains twice as much protein as meat, can help end deforestation as it could replace soy protein in livestock feed, could improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gases, and can be used to clean industrial wastewater preventing harmful runoffs as it can even grow in polluted water (Medium, 2017). The technology and the biology needed to produce livestock feed made of microalgae exist, it’s just the process of developing an economically sustainable price-range for production.
Algae has been mentioned frequently in recent environmental news topics. It is often seen as environmentally toxic and damaging. It is important to understand the difference in microalgae species regarding those which do not produce harmful side effects [to the environment, wildlife, or humans] and those which may cause harmful algal blooms, such as the toxin-producing Ostreopsis (Gallitelli, Unagro, Addante, 2005), which is less than one percent of all algal blooms (NOAA, 2018) . The potential use of non-harmful algae in biofuel production comes with many challenges, but there is quite a bit of research that proves it could be a worthwhile change in comparison to fossil fuel usage. One major concern is that algae will never be able to meet the increasing demand for liquid fuel in the United States (Dietz, 2017). The greatest challenge we still face is finding a renewable energy source and create an industry that will operate sustainably, and can also be cost competitive with existing energy sources (Hannon, Gimpel, Tran, Rasala, Mayfield, 2010).
An article from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute laid out the concept of algal farms adjoining the sea. They stated that marine microalgae could be grown in areas that avoid land competition, and the use of freshwater would not be required in the growth of marine microalgae, which is an expensive source that is becoming more scarce (Dietz, 2017). Algae is a renewable energy source that is an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Researchers in Koana, Hawaii have demonstrated that algae uses photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into vital oils and biomass, which then produces Omega-3 fatty acids, animal feed and biofuels. Chuck Greene of Cornell University developed a design which shows that algal farms could be used for more than just energy, but also for sustainable fish farming (Dietz, 2017).
Researchers have developed a process called Combined Algal Processing (CAP). This method hydrolyzes the carbohydrates to monomeric sugars by using sulfuric acid and elevated temperatures. These researchers have proposed that corn, cane, and cellulosic sugars can be substituted by these microalgal sugars (Pienkos, PhD., 2018). Dr. Martin Gross of Gross-Wen Technologies has developed an algal farming method that involves vertically oriented conveyor belts that slowly rotate into wastewater containing nitrogen and phosphorus, which the algae needs to grow. The conveyor belt method allows the algae to receive the water, CO2, and sunlight needed to grow as it passes in and out of the water (Hammerich, T., 2018). For any algae farm, water and nutrients must be available at lower costs and farm worker costs at reasonable rates in order to keep operation and production costs at a minimum (Clifford, n.d.).
The growing conditions and larger size of macroalgae makes them more difficult to cultivate in a controlled environment (Walker, 2013). Microalgae is not yet economically viable to produce on a larger scale as it is simply too expensive to switch the world’s livestock feed from the current soy-based feeds being used, to a feed using microalgae instead. Scientists are still working on ways to gradually implement a cost-effective method of producing animal feeds with microalgae (Medium, 2017). Open and closed pond designs are both possible, and offer variations in sizes, CO2 utilization, evaporation losses, cell density, energy consumption, among many others. Closed pond systems offer much better control and therefore higher productivity, but come at a much higher cost (Clifford, n.d.).
In 2005, Ocean Nutrition Canada was working on a project screening marine algae samples and discovered a single-celled microorganism producing triacylglycerol oil in substantial quantities in one of the samples – this oil is a base for biofuels (Brenhouse, 2010). Petroleum is derived from ancient algae deposits but is a limited resource which will either run out or become too expensive to continue using (Hannon, Gimpel, Tran, Rasala, Mayfield, 2010). Coal usage results in harmful waste in the environment, acid rain, disruption of wildlife, and aside from the dangerous effects, there are limited stocks of coal remaining and this source will soon be depleted (Fossil Fuel, 2019). Certain species of microalgae can be a suitable alternative for next generation biofuels due to their high amounts of oil and fast growth rate. Using modern technology, these oils can be extracted and refined into transportation fuels (Gouveia, Oliveira, 2009). Microalgae use far less water and do not displace food crop cultures, as mentioned from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, algae farms would not need freshwater and would be placed along the sea. Marine microalgae, Nannochloropsis, proved to be a sustainable source of raw materials for biofuel production (Gouveia, Oliveira, 2009).
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