Published on April 6th, 2011 | by Glenn Meyers2
Questions Emerge about Genetically Engineering Algae as Biofuels
For those wondering about the present-day status of developing algae into renewable fuels, rest assured, much is occurring. The field that is aggressively exploring the genetic modification of algae to produce superior strains of biofuels now has many big players, including companies like Exxon-Mobil, Sapphire Energy and Monsanto, to name a few.
While extensive research and development work such as this might be regarded as trailblazing work to a bright future for renewable energy, it also raises doubts among some about what the long-term effects might be for genetically modified strains of algae.
Renewable Energy World editor Stephen Lacey has produced a podcast on the subject that is worth the listen.
To introduce the subject, Lacey writes, “A number of companies are working on genetically modifying algae to speed growth, increase lipid content and favorably change the economics of fuel production. But some critics fear that gains in algae productivity could come at the expense of ecological health.”
There are an estimated 50,000 species of algae in the world producing around half of the earth’s oxygen. These species also provide nutrients to the food chain, soil chemistry and water ecosystems. But when left unchecked, they can become an invasive species; given the right conditions, algal blooms foul waterways, choke wildlife and make humans sick. Think about the once-upon-a-time promise of Kudzu as a ground cover that could arrest erosion in the South — and its now seemingly unstoppable growth patterns that destroy many other native plants.
Bottom line, there remains much to learn about the role of algae, opines David Haberman, a bioenergy consultant. Creating genetically engineered algae in the lab is one thing, releasing it to the world before understanding all consequences is something else altogether, emphasizes Haberman.
“The reality is that no one has a clear understanding of those interactions,” Haberman says. “The lack of study of the potential hazards is of great concern.”
Lacey cites Tom Allnut, senior vice president of R&D at an algae start-up Phycal, who believes some of the concerns about engineered algae are valid –- something that requires having the correct protections in place before moving forward.
“I think as responsible citizens we should have a system of bio-containment,” says Allnut. “And we’ve already done that in molecular biology.”
The U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture have invested heavily in numerous algae projects. Unfortunately, Haberman says those agencies have explicitly set aside necessary federal environmental reviews in order to accelerate research and prove the technologies. He believes that the avoidance of comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessments is irresponsible.
As Lacey writes: “With no comprehensive effort to study the impact, no one really knows what how big the problem could be – or even if it’s a serious problem at all.” Listen to the podcast to learn more.
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