Thursday, December 5, 2013

Big Energy from Small Beginnings

Energy is by far the largest industry in the world, and is certainly not short on controversy. Global warming has become generally accepted or at the very least, recognized as actually existing.  The burning of fossil fuels spews billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year and at best, the biological mechanisms that process this carbon dioxide can only handle about half of what is produced.  Billions of dollars a year are spent on the discovery and development of safer and more efficient ways to fuel our vehicles, as well as to heat and power homes and businesses. Cleaner and cheaper energy is not only a very relevant issue regarding our personal health and the health of our planet, but also represents an amazing economic opportunity for any person or institution that can develop safer and cheaper methods of powering our lives.  One of the most interesting methods for producing cleaner and cheaper energy that has been in major development for the past couple of decades is the production of biofuels.  In his energy plan for America, President Obama “called for a Federal investment of $150 billion over the next decade to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future” (1), and biofuels are a large part of that plan.
Green algae cultivated in a glass photobioreactor
Biofuels are produced by carbon fixation from plants and microalgae rather than the decomposition of organic matter over millions of years.  Since I have owned a flex-fuel vehicle and am convinced that the use E-85 fuel produced from plants had catastrophic effects on the condition and performance of the engine in that vehicle, I will focus on the method that I find more intriguing which is algal biofuels.  Using algae for the production of biofuels presents a myriad of advantages and disadvantages. It is the harvesting of the suns natural energy, a high reproductive rate, and production of fatty acid molecules stored as lipid that fuels bioreactors.
Another big advantage from the use of algae for biofuel production is that these algae can be cultivated in wastewater using the nutrients that exist in such an environment and also harvest the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for its metabolic processes (2). In fact bioremediation is a natural byproduct of the algal life cycle and cultivating these microbes in the appropriate environments could allow us to counteract the effects of fossil fuel use while at the same time producing clean energy sources. The major drawback to algal biofuel production is that it is not yet an economically feasible process. As with any new technology, many millions of dollars need to be fed into the research and development process before producing biofuel from algae will be a profitable venture. As most of us know, any private organization that would have the means to take on the algal biofuel production process will not do so without the notion of profiting from it in the future. This is where the federal government can step in with the subsidies from their energy plan for America, and it could all start with the right microscopic single-celled organism.
Chlorella vulgaris is a species of single-celled green algae that has become a popular candidate in recent years as a source for algal biofuel production. C. vulgaris versatile and has not only been considered as a potential biofuel producer, but also as a potential food source due to its high protein content and favorable ratio of fats, carbs, and minerals. This microbe multiplies rapidly and has an extremely high photosynthetic efficiency rate which is ideal for harvesting as much natural energy from the sun as possible (3). Studies like that of Johnson and Wen are being performed to determine the conditions for growth of C. vulgaris that produce the highest yielding output of biofuel production components (4). This and other studies are able to show that C. vulgaris has the appropriate characteristics to become a clean and efficient biofuel producer due to its ability to produce large amounts of biomass at a high rate as well as the ability to gather large amounts of fatty acids in the form of lipids which are the constituents of the desired resulting biofuel (4). Also, not being a fan of crop produced biofuels, algae based biofuel production systems can generate 30 times more oil per acre/year than crop-based production (4). Algae are widely studied microbes that have the potential for positive impacts on many global industries, specifically the energy sector. Although cultivation of algal colonies for the production of biofuels is currently too costly to become a player in the energy industry, it is a major factor in the drive to develop clean and cheap energy sources. Studies like the ones discussed in this paper need to be funded and taken seriously because they are the link to our clean energy future. The choice is clear that with the combination of private and government funding,targets set by regulators for production and use of clean energy sources, as well as motivation of the public and professionals who can make clean energy a reality, an efficient and profitable process can be developed for the production of biofuels from the cultivation of algae species such as C. vulgaris.


(1): Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. U.S. Biofuels Industry: Mind the Gap. Pg. 30. Accessed on 11/19/2013. Web.

(2): The Student-Edited Microbiology Resource. Kenyon College Department of Biology. Updated 7/23/2011. Accessed on 11/19/2013. Web.

(3): Madhab Mahapatra D., & Ramachandra, T. V. (2013). Algal biofuel: bountiful lipid from Chlorococcum sp. proliferating in municipal wastewater. Current Science (00113891), 105(1), 47-55.

(4): Johnson, M. B., & Zhiyou, W. (2010). Development of an attached microbial growth system for biofuel production. Applied Microbiology & Biotechnology, 85(3), 525-534. Doi:10.1007/s00253-009-2133-2.

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