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Is Algae Our Last Chance To Fuel The World?

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(Inside Science) -- The world will eventually run out of cheap fossil fuels. But before we run out, we’ll probably try to siphon every last drop out of the earth. This means we’ll dig so deep that it will become costly and inefficient to extract the fuel. What happens then? The answer may be found in one of the simplest forms of life on earth.

To some people algae is a green mucky mess, but to Steve Mayfield, PhD, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Diego, this genetically modified super algae may be our ticket to the production of cost effective biofuels – fueling everything from cars to jets to diesel trucks.

According to Mayfield, “Biofuels are any fuel that is made from a recently living organism. Why do we say recently living organism? Because petroleum is simply fossil algae, and coal is fossil plants. So all fossil fuels are biofuels, but they're just not recent biofuels, they’re ancient fossil biofuels.”

Plants and algae use photosynthesis to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons make excellent fuels for cars and planes.

“Algae, because they're a living organism, they make proteins, they make carbohydrates, and then they make lots and lots of fats, fats are really good fuels,” said Mayfield.

A well-known biofuel is corn based ethanol, but algae based biofuels are much more efficient.

Mayfield agrees, “much more efficient at taking sunlight and CO2 and turning it into a fuel.”

Are there any engines that actually run on algae based biofuel? The answer to that is yes. In fact, every single engine is already running on biofuel!

“Anything that runs on gasoline or diesel, or jet fuel, those are algae fuels,” confirms Mayfield.

What about global warming? The problem with fossil fuels are that they release CO2 into our atmosphere. That CO2 was captured by algae millions of years ago, and has been trapped underground ever since.

When we make fuels from algae we're releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, the process is the same. The difference is we captured that CO2 the week before by photosynthesis,” stated Mayfield.

Mayfield is working to solve the technical issues that come with producing biofuels on a much larger scale.

“That's what we spend our time doing here. Thinking about how we domesticate algae so that it is suitable for biofuel production,” revealed Mayfield.

He says that making algae biofuels in bigger quantities will get cheaper over time.

“What are we doing now, we're taking algae, growing it in real-time, extracting the exact same oils, the exact same lipids that we would find in petroleum, were extracting those from living algae and then we convert those to gasoline, and jet, and diesel. We think we can hit a target number of 80, 85 dollars a barrel.” continued Mayfield.

Algae based biofuel is one solution that addresses three of the most critical issues in our world today. With great hope for the future, researchers push forward, preparing for the day when economic forces will drive the wide scale adoption of biofuels.

Mayfield concludes, “We cannot keep seven and a half billion people alive and thriving on this planet if we do not have an energy and food source for them. So this is something that we absolutely have to do.”

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