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Marine Microalgae may Help Create Green Fuel, Combat Global Warming and Food Insecurity

According to a study published in the journal Oceanography (December 2016), microalgae, which are taken from the bottom of the marine food chain, may soon become a top candidate to combat global warming, energy and food insecurity.

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We may have stumbled onto the next green revolution.

Charles H. Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University

Professor Charles H. Greene is lead author of the new paper, "Marine Microalgae: Climate, Energy and Food Security from the Sea".

The new study provides an overview of the idea of large-scale industrial cultivation of marine microalgae (ICMM).

ICMM could minimize the use of fossil fuel by providing liquid hydrocarbon biofuels for cargo shipping and aviation industries. Lipids are extracted from microalgae biomass for producing biofuels and the remaining microalgae biomass can then be converted into nutritious animal feeds or maybe consumed by humans.

In order to produce biofuel, researchers harvest freshly grown microalgae, extract most of the water, and then remove the lipids for the fuel. The residual defatted biomass is highly nutritious and protein-rich byproduct, which can be added to feeds for domesticated animals, such as pigs and chickens, or aquacultured animals, such as shrimp and salmon.

Growing sufficient algae to meet the current global demand for liquid fuel would require an area of approximately 800,000 square miles, or a little less than three times the size of Texas. Simultaneously, 2.4 billion tons of protein co-product would be produced, which corresponds to nearly 10 times the global annual production of soy protein.

Marine microalgae do not contest with terrestrial agriculture for cultivatable land, nor does they require freshwater for growing. Many arid, subtropical regions, like Mexico, Australia, North Africa and the Middle East, would yield suitable locations for generating huge amounts of microalgae.

A commercial microalgae facility of nearly 2,500 acres would cost approximately $400 million to $500 million.

That may seem like a lot of money, but integrated solutions to the world’s greatest challenges will pay for themselves many times over during the remainder of this century. The costs of inaction are too steep to even contemplate.

I think of algae as providing food security for the world. It will also provide our liquid fuels needs, not to mention its benefits in terms of land use. We can grow algae for food and fuels in only one-tenth to one one-hundredth the amount of land we currently use to grow food and energy crops.

We can relieve the pressure to convert rainforests to palm plantations in Indonesia and soy plantations in Brazil. We got into this looking to produce fuels, and in the process, we found an integrated solution to so many of society’s greatest challenges.

Charles H. Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University

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