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Texas A&M University Exposes Algae's Secret Fossil Fuel Stash

Texas A&M researchers have discovered a strain of algae that directly produces petroleum type oilIn the search for a high efficiency algae biofuel, a team of researchers lead by Texas A&M University has been delving into the inner workings of the Botryococcus braunii green algae, and they have discovered a direct connection between the algae and deposits of  petroleum and coal.  The discovery is significant because it could lead to the development of new strains of algae that produce the highest yield of biofuel compared to the amount of space needed to raise them.

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Biofuel from algae and other plants is on the verge of mainstreaming as a form of renewable energy, but in terms of long term sustainability one sticking point has been the amount of land needed to raise biofuel crops.  Texas A&M’s finding raises the possibility of creating a viable platform for small-scale algae biofuel farming on brownfields and other underused land, or even in (or on top of) reclaimed buildings — which in turn would help create another opportunity to invest in green jobs.

Texas A&M and Algae Biofuel

The A&M researchers have been working with a team that includes the University of Kentucky and the University of Tokyo.  As reported by A&M writer Robert Burns, the researchers found that oils from Botryococcus braunii could be easily found in petroleum and coal deposits, leading to the probability that the algae played a significant role in forming those fossil fuels.  Like some other types green algae, B. braunii could produce a very high volume of fuel relative to its weight.  B. braunii has the additional advantage of producing an oil that is chemically identical to gasoline, diesel and kerosene (other algae produce vegetable oils).  On the downside, B. braunii’s growth rate is far slower than other biofuel algae, so that is one fact that researchers hope to improve.

Algae Biofuels and Fossil Fuels: Game On

When you look at the overall benefits of growing fuel in algae farms rather than digging it out of the ground, it’s pretty clear that the days of fossil fuels are numbered.  For one thing, the algae farm of the future could very well be relatively small scale and located quite close to its point of use, avoiding the costs, carbon footprint, and hazards (Exxon Valdez much?) of shipping fuels over long distances.  The impact of algae farms that are located on brownfields and other appropriate sites would be far more manageable than the damage done by mountaintop coal mining, to say nothing of the under-the-radar but surprisingly extensive surface damage caused by traditional underground coal mines.  Natural gas isn’t off the hook, either, as proven by the significant water quality and infrastructure problems that are beginning to bubble up in areas like the Marcellus Shale formation, where gas is harvested by pumping massive quantities of chemically treated water underground.

Algae Biofuel – The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The notorious Tennessee coal ash spill is representative of coal’s gift that keeps on giving, in the form of massive quantities of coal ash slurry containing heavy metals and other pollutants.  In contrast, the main byproduct of algae farming is algae “cake,” which a team of Australian researchers has shown could be fed to cows.  Even better, an algae cake diet appears to lower greenhouse gas emissions from cows.  Depending on the process, algae fuel production also yields glycerin as a byproduct, and glycerin is developing into a high value bio-feedstock for making additional fuels, non-toxic antifreeze and even synthetic fabrics.

Image: Algae by shaferlens on flickr.com.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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