Scientists are tapping a new, unexpected source of sustainable fuel: algae. Like Mother Dirt’s healthy bacteria, these little guys might be able to fuel big change for the health of our society.
The world runs on energy transfers. When you eat a sandwich, your body transforms delicious carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into the energy needed to bike up a hill. Biking causes you to sweat, covering your skin with the ammonia that feeds your skin’s healthy bacteria (AOB) and fuels their existence in your skin microbiome.
This powerful cycle of energy is happening constantly, yet it's so amorphous and understated that we're not even aware it's happening (most of the time).
Now, scientists are trying to recreate this natural and seamless process to fuel our manmade society—and they’re drawing inspiration from one common sushi ingredient.
Algae: the (potential) next source of sustainable energy
We're always searching for new sources of fuel to drive our lifestyles. On a global scale, fossil fuels have long been a major source for industrialized countries. Our increased understanding of the human impact on nature has led to a search for sustainable fuels, and has encouraged the growth of alternative fuel industries like wind, solar, thermal, and biomass energies.
These solutions are not yet meeting global demand, so the search for an alternative fuel source continues. One answer in particular might be microscopic organisms who live happily alongside AOB in the ocean -- algae.
Algae have a handful of traits that make them ideal for harnessing energy from biomass: they’re productive, non-invasive, and easily cultivated on a massive scale. Growing algae is cheap, and doesn’t suck up too many precious agricultural resources.
Growing a neutral fuel cycle
The technology to convert algae to energy has been improving rapidly. Recently, researchers have found a type of algae native to Australia that can be used as high grade jet fuel -- and it grows well in wastewater!
At Michigan State University, researchers have been testing a way to grow algae for energy without sunlight. The Algae Photo Bioreactor is designed to grow algae in an enclosed tank that is fed with the CO2 emissions from a power plant. In practice, this means a power plant and an algae growing plant could be colocated, taking up minimal land space, and could reduce the emissions from the plant while increasing the energy production drastically.
One if by land, 60 if by sea
If we find an effective way to transform algae into energy, these sea organisms could have a serious impact. Algae can potentially produce up to 60 times the biofuel per acre than land-based plants!
Our takeaway? Don’t underestimate the little guys. We already see our healthy bacteria assuming an important role in global health. All of these tiny organisms hold so much power and potential to create major change.
As these algae-to-energy technologies gain momentum, what small-in-stature, large-in-impact organisms will we learn about next?