Algae’s Possible Dark Side

Algae-based biofuels are being hotly explored by oil giants like Exxon Mobil and Conoco Philips.© Congressman Brian Bilbray

Dampening enthusiasm for the development of algae-based biofuels—which have been championed as a green alternative to corn- and soy-based ethanol—a new study reveals that algae biofuels may actually be an environmental step back. Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering found that algae biofuels production "consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn."

As detailed in a January 2010 E Magazine article, "Running on Algae," the green stuff has been the focus of intense research and speculation in recent years. In July 2009, oil giant Exxon Mobil announced a $600 million deal with Synthetic Genomics to explore algae’s use as a fuel. Three other oil giants—British Petroleum, Conoco Philips and Chevron, had previously jumped in the algae race.

But since commercial development of algae biofuels is still years off, there may be time to correct some of the forecasted environmental drawbacks. The primary problem researchers found was with the process" demand for carbon dioxide and fertilizer. The researchers posit that if the wastewater from the process was treated and utilized, it would greatly offset those impacts.

Source: Biofuels Digest.