Catherine Luu
December 9, 2010

As fossils fuels are continually depleted, the need to find alternative sources of energy becomes more and more urgent. Environmental damage by high carbon emissions and a dependency on crude oil have pushed people to explore more sustainable fuel sources. There has been an increase in interest in the use of plants such as corn and soy as a source of biofuels but even these crops can be quite limiting. A promising alternative now being explored is algae. The properties of algae have made it an extremely attractive candidate for biofuels because it is carbon neutral, grows extremely fast, and has the ability to store extractable oils. This page will discuss biofuels in general, the properties that make algae an excellent potential biofuel, as well as the challenges presented by it.

Why Algal Biofuels?
I became interested in this topic because it explores organisms we have studied in class as well as the numerous
practical applications they have. Studying algae in class has helped me realize how much the general public does not know about algae and how they help us everyday as fertilizers, food supplements, stabilizing agents, aids in pollution control, and now biofuels (Santhanam, 2010). In addition, I greatly support efforts to improve the current state of our environment and am very interested in any type of new advancements being made to restore it. We have been repeatedly warned of global warming and the negative impact made by increasing CO2 emissions by the burning of fossil fuels. By utilizing energy stored within algae, the possibility of ending global dependence on crude oil is now within reach.

Algae 101
Algae range from single-celled to multicellular organisms. Most species are photosynthetic, meaning they require sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to survive. They can naturally be found in very large quantities in swamps, marshes, and our oceans. Having a wide variety of strains, algae are very versatile in that they can grow in fresh or salt water (Singh, 2010). They possess accessory pigments (green, blue, red, brown, golden) based on where they can live and the light available (Tortora, 2010). Unicellular algae, also called microalgae (Singh, 2010), include green algae and diatoms (Tortora, 2010). They produce and store lipids that are extracted for biodiesel by heterotrophic processes where the cell uses carbon sources for chemical energy (Tortora, 2010). Red, brown, and certain species of green algae are multicellular algae or macroalgae. These strains do not store lipids but are harvested for carbohydrates and other natural sugars for bioethanol (Singh, 2010).

It is estimated that all of the United States' vehicles releases roughly 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. In addition, about $820 million is paid to foreign governments daily for the crude oil we are so heavily dependent on (Svoboda, 2007). With this knowledge, it is becoming more of a priority to find renewable sources of energy such as tidal, wind, and solar. However, there is a need for liquid biofuels because of their capabilities to store solar energy as well as be used in vehicles (Scott, 2010). The current most available biofuels are bioethanol derived from corn, starch, sugar cane, and sugar beet as well as biodiesel from soy, palm oil and rapeseed oil (Tortora, 2010). These have proven to be problematic because they end up using up more energy than the end product. Obstacles include sustainability regarding competition for farmland and resources. For example, corn is already a top crop used for livestock feed. An increase in corn demand would increase prices for farmers as well as take away land needed for growth for actual food. These crops also deplete land of healthy top soil and make the land uninhabitable for future crops (Tortora, 2010). The growing all of these crops also require a great amount of resources such as water and the burning of fossil fuels for processing and transport. In addition, ethanol cannot be transported using traditional pipelines because of its tendency to absorb water (Tortora, 2010).

"Oilgae" As A Solution
Tube bio reactors used to grow algae in a controlled environment.

Algal cells have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, allowing them to easily absorb nutrients. They can grow very quickly (they are capable of doubling their biomass within 24 hours (Singh, 2010)) and produce oil easily in small enclosed spaces (100 times more oil per acre of land than terrestrial plants! (Singh, 2010)) in comparison to huge amount of land needed to grow crops such as soy and corn. About 140 billion gallons of biodiesel would be needed to replace the petroleum-based fuel we currently use, and in order to do so, we would need about 95 million acres to grow a sufficient amount of algae. This is a tiny fraction of the 3 billion acres needed for soy or the 1 billion for corn (Svoboda, 2007).

Algae's capabilities of thriving in fresh or salt water opens up doors to even more sustainable solutions. Wastewater from agricultural, municipal, and industrial sources can help companies save money and contribute to algal biofuels (Pittman, 2010). Power plants and utility companies have already begun to manage their carbon emissions by feeding it to algae (Svoboda, 2007). Not only are the algae fed by these harmful wastes to produce biofuels, but they are also preventing them from further harming our environment as well as saving companies money from water treatment.


Algae holds a huge amount of unlocked potential but still presents some issues and obstacles just as any new technology. Algal fuel is still quite expensive because of expensive bioreactors needed for cultivation and harvesting (Santhanam, 2010) and a desired oil yield is met in order to make the entire process profitable (Singh, 2010). As there is still much research to be done, there is a lack of standard procedures and protocols for algae cultivation and fuel production (Santhanam, 2010). In addition, much of the planning being done for fuel production is primarily hypothetical since this is still a new technology that has not yet produced too much real-life data (Scott, 2010). However, the potential benefits of algal biofuels greatly outweigh the financial obstacles that researchers are currently trying to overcome to bring this fuel to a commercialized scale (Santhanam, 2010).

Algal Biofuels On The Rise
Solazyme revealed this Mercedes C320 that is capable of running on algae based fuels

I was not familiar with the concept of algal biofuels until beginning my research for this assignment and was amazed at how much has already been done in utilizing this multi-functional organism. Mass production has already begun using bioengineered algae for biodiesel and jetfuel by a San Francisco based company called Solazyme (Dearen, 2010). The U.S. military has received $21.8 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy for an algae refinery has already ordered over 150,000 gallons of biofuels from Solazyme (Dearen, 2010). As a major energy consumer, the military aims to reduce fossil fuel usage by 50% in 10 years and is looking to algae as the solution (Dearen, 2010). Solazyme has has also revealed at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival "the first real-world road test" of algal biodiesel in a Mercedes Benz C320 (Kain, 2009). Another company such as Chevron has also partnered up with Solazyme to also produce algae based fuels (Kain, 2009) showing that true sustainable and renewable energy may no longer be dream but an achievable reality.

Literature Cited

Dearen, J. (2010 , December 3). Military increases investment in algae fuels. The Press Democrat,
Kain, A. (2009, April 15). Oilgae test drive: algae power hits the road. Retrieved from
Pittman, J.K., A.P. Dean and O. Osundeko. 2010. The potential of sustainable algal biofuel production using wastewater resources. Published online in Bioresource Technology 102 (1): 17-25.
Santhanam, N. (2010). Properties of algae. Retrieved from
Scott, S.A., Davey, M.P., Dennis, J.S., Horst, I., Howe, C.J., D.J. Lea-Smith and A.G. Smith. 2010. Biodiesel from algae: challenges and prospects. Published online in Current Opinion in Biotechnology 21:277–28.
Singh, A., P.S. Nigamb, P.S. and J.D. Murphy. 2010. Mechanism and challenges in commercialization of algal biofuels. Published online in Bioresource Technology 102 (1): 26-34.
Svoboda, E. (2007, July 1). The greenest green fuel. Popular Science, Retrieved from
Tortora, G.J., B.R. Funke and C.L. Case. 2010. Microbiology: An Introduction. Pearson Education, Inc., San Francisco., 340-343 pp.