Essential to the future well-being of Earth's ecosystems is the ability to discover and globally embrace sustainable, non-polluting sources of fuel. For the past decade, an intense interest in incorporating marine algae in biofuels has generated an active algaculture industry for creating biodiesel, biobutanol and a variety of other biofuels that need to replace currently inefficient methods of burning fossil fuels for energy.
Benefits of algae-based biofuels include:
- Growing marine algae exerts minimal to no impact on reserves of freshwater. In fact, algae will grow in modified waste and seawater and remain biodegradable.
- According to a 2008 Washington Post article “A Promising Oil Alternative: Algae Energy” by Eviana Hartment, the U.S. Department of Energy claims that replacement of fossil fuels by algae fuel would require less than 20,000 square miles, or half the size of Maine.
- Sequestration of carbon dioxide would significantly increase, preventing the probability of massive desertification, loss of rainforest habitat for millions of animals and harmful amounts of ultraviolet radiation making life on Earth nearly impossible.
- Certain strains of algae can double their mass (primarily consisting of triacyglycerides and lipids) three, four or even five times a day, with the possibility of manufacturing over 100 times more biofuel oil per acre than any other crop that produces oils, such as soybeans or corn.
Biofuel can be sourced from acres of corn field.
Advantages of marine algae biofuel spurred the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC to hire researchers to investigate the viability of different methods meant to improve biofuel production utilizing algae. Recently, Scripps graduate students began developing the methodology to genetically engineer a growth component vital to the efficient manufacturing of biofuel.
However, one problem they had to overcome initially involved eliciting lipid oils from marine algae necessary for creating biofuel. Only when the algae was nutritionally starved did these organisms produce the oil that was needed. Unfortunately, starving algae stunts their growth, as does starving any other living organism. Feeding algae enough to stimulate growth caused the algae to produce carbohydrates, which contributes nothing to the making of biofuel.
After several attempts at altering marine algae genetic material, researchers targeted special enzymes found in diatoms through a process called transcriptomics that blocked the ability of lipases, or “fat-reducing” enzymes, to perform their function. Consequently, researchers were able to generate a significant increase in lipids while continuing to feed the algae all the nutrients they could consume.
Accumulating massive amounts of biomass by maintaining accelerated rates of growth without compromising the integrity of marine algae is vital to actualizing production of biofuel on the level that fossil fuels are currently being produced. With significant advances consistently developing in regards to lipid extraction, identification of relevant algae strains and refining technology to facilitate the wide-scale presentation of algae biofuels, further methods to improve the integration of enzyme modification and nutrient applications as well as harvesting techniques are needed to address economical approaches to building biorefineries capable of manufacturing separate biofuels from a single source of biomass materials.
Image Credit: photos.com
Further Reading: A Promising Oil Alternative: Algae Energy, The Search for Alternative Energies, Researchers Engineer Breakthrough for Biofuel Production, Transcriptomics Responses in Marine Diatom