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Every day we are bombarded by evidence that incriminates leaders of oil producing countries with terrorism (and the human right issues which have become synonymous with these countries and their respective leaders), it is from this evidence that the incentive to find an alternative to oil as a source of energy stems from. The environmental issues surrounding this energy source that can only be bought from dictators have ultimately been exceeded by the strategic weaknesses of solely depending on this oil. The economy strain on the United States and other countries that do not have oil or enough oil to cater for their oil needs resulting from large sums of money that they have to spend buying oil from these dictatorial regime makes the need for alternative energy sources more urgent.
In US oil is principally used for transportation, this is better seen in the fact that two third of the oil in the United States is used for transportation (Ayhan, 2010). This demonstrates the urgency of developing an alternative source of energy for powering out buses, trucks, and cars, which in all intents and purposes will go along way in weaning the United States, and the world in general, off this oil dependency. It is no doubt that the "hydrogen economy" has been receiving a lot of publicity in recent times, however this does not mean that hydrogen is the best placed energy source to act as an alternative to oil, if anything it has several disadvantages, especially concerning it use as an automobile energy, that disqualifies it as an alternative to oil. Algae biofuel is even better placed to take that position although it also has serious problems that ought to be addressed for it to emerge as the ideal alternative to oil. These problems are mostly associated with the algae as its source.
Algae biofuel has been on the center of this discussion of the alternative energy source. It has even been touted as the ideal alternative source of energy ostensibly because of its cheapness and ease of extracting, two of its strengths that have been portrayed has a panacea for the entire range of the carbon fuel problems. In fact these days it is impossible to conclude an alternative energy discussion without exploring the strengths and the potentials of algae biofuel as an alternative source of energy. Despite the obvious environmental advantage that we are always reminded in the discussion, there are myriads of challenges that stand in the way of algae biofuel in becoming an alternative source of energy. For instance, the production of algae biofuel on a national level would not be cheap and easy as some people would like us to believe. Its health hazard is another thing that has not been fully explored in the discussion. In this regard am referring to the algae biofuel potential of becoming a killer of sort to aquatic living things while posing a health hazard to human being and a threat to the ecosystem. This is precisely the reason why am advocating for another source of energy in place of algae biofuel.
Merits of algae biofuel:
Other than the promise of the weaning the world of the oil dependence, algae biofuel hold a significant promise to a number of ills (societies and otherwise) that includes animal feedstock, nutritional products, job creation, CO2 mitigation, nutriceuticals, and wastewater treatment to name but a few (Ayhan, 2010). Another of the advantage of algae rest in the fact that it is one of the fastest-growing-photosynthesizing organism (they are known to compete a complete metamorphosis in a single day) (Ayhan, 2010). Other than the energy there are a host of other necessary products that can be harvested from these algae, for instance, they are known to contain a large component of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. From these components it is possible to get industrial ethanol and animal feed after harvesting fat which is used in the production of the energy (Ayhan, 2010).
Though yet to be confirmed, the cost of producing large scale fuel has been found to be cost effective and even comparable cheaper than importing oil. This can be seen in the latest estimates from the UNH (University of New Hampshire) research that showed how 7.5 billion gallon of biodiesel can be produced at a cost of $46.2 billion which is significantly lower than the $100150 billion that the United States uses to purchase crude oil every year (Ayhan, 2010). This means that the large scale algae project proposed by NREF (National Renewal Energy Laboratory) has the potential of creating jobs while reducing considerably the United States' trade deficit.
Studies show that, in United States, 70% of power plants have adequate 'food' and space to install a complement of algae bioreactor (Ayhan, 2010). Therefore assuming that there will be adequate fresh seawater, enough sunlight and most importantly, enough enthusiasm from the concerned authorities, then we are likely to have an algae biofuel plant up and running in not so distance future. Enthusiasm in this case means the passing of requisite legislations that will put algae farm in the hands of qualified farmers. One of the greatest strengths of the algae biofuel as a source of energy rest in its reduction of carbon emission, which has becomes a major concern in recent times (Ayhan, 2010). In a nutshell biofuel has the potential of proving us with a high-quality, high-throughput biofuel system with minimal carbon emission.
Demerits of algae biofuel:
One of the major issues that have been cited concerning algae biofuel is its comparable increased costs which are limiting. This increased costs in the United States context that have been cited comes inform of the more research, more R & D, more large-world-experience, more pilot project, more larger facilities especially in production, more data, more training, more young graduates pursuing certain science specialties, and more basic science (Graneli, & Turner, 2006). What this means is that for algae biofuel to fit the bills there is a lot of research and development that is needed, otherwise it will remain in level of the small-scale fuel. Another cost component in this is that if for whatever reasons it fails miserably the viability test such that it does not promise to yield commercial scale algae biofuel, then the R & D cost would be considered waste. According to engineering studies that have been conducted so far, the United States cannot be assured of its potential to produce industry grade biofuel (Graneli, & Turner, 2006).
A demonstration of the loads of research, and in extension costs, that are needed before algae biofuel can seriously be considered for national level energy production can be seen in Dr. Benemann's estimation. According to Dr. Benemann's, a scientist whose research have been cited extensively in majority of the industry's work, the current potential production level stands at around 2000 gallon per acre/year. There are other scientists who have pegged their figure to around 2500 gallon per acre/year, a figure which Dr, Benemann considers still appropriate but on the upper limit. According to Dr. Benemann this productivity can be increased a number of time (2, 3, or 4) from the limit that we are having (Romanowska-Duda et al, 2006). It is in at this point that he point out that for that increasing of capacity to be a reality an "immediate moratorium on genetic engineering on algae strains (Romanowska-Duda et al, 2006)" needs to be in place. This is simply an indirect call for more research which as I have pointed out means more costs.
Majority of us when they hear of genetic engineering what goes on in their mind is a threat to the human health and also the environment (Romanowska-Duda et al, 2006). The same case applies to algal strains, something that persists irrespective of Dr. Benemann assurance to the contrary. His recommendation for the nano-tech model in wading through this quagmire (implementing algae's genetic engineering) is even more baffling, simple because it shows the long haul that is to be covered before Alga biofuel can be considered an appropriate alternative to oil energy source (Romanowska-Duda et al, 2006).
Scaling the production of algae biofuel from the experimental level that it is in to an economically viable level of a national energy strategy is a serious challenge that stands in the way of the infant industry in emerging as an alternative source of energy to oil energy (Geoffrey, et al, 2000). To put into perspective the misconception that algae biofuel production let us look at a case of one Mark Hansen. Hansen is said to have received a phone call early in the week from a landowner from close to Lake Wood in Minnesota requesting to know of his Hansen's idea on harvesting algae which had become a menace to the Lake (Geoffrey, et al, 2000). Hansen is reported to have responded with a brief explanation of algae biofuel production. First Hansen took the eager landowner through the process of getting, growing, and also harvesting algae, concluding with a statement to the effect that the process itself is tasking and complicated. This is contrary to the argument that seems to suggest that algae biofuel production is cheap and easy.
The idea that Algae biofuel is cheap is another misconception that is increasingly getting corrected (Geoffrey, et al, 2000). This misconception is one of the reasons that prompted Jimmy Carter, former US president, to launch the Aquatic Species Program in 1978 (Geoffrey, et al, 2000). This program was among others expected to assess the cost component and the general potentialities of algae biofuel as an energy alternative to oil. It was from that program that we came to known of the cost of a barrel of oil extracted from algae (Schueneman, 2009). At the time it was placed at $40 to $70 a barrel, which was twice the cost of the crude oil at the time. Time might have changed but I doubt whether there is much variation in price between that time's price and today's. This therefore demonstrates the economic impracticality of biofuel as a source of energy.
Three decade after the first interest was showed on biofuel as an alternative source of energy and we still do not have a framework of guiding further studies on the same, not to mention regulatory measure and a body to guide the operation of the industry. This silence and inaction can only mean one thing - that biofuel is still unviable to act as an alternative source of energy of fossil fuel. It is a pity that even after the recommendations of Pienkos, the former National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Chief Research Supervisor, calling for the setting up of a regulatory framework of standards and policies for this nascent industry at the time, nothing much has been done towards that end up to date (Briggs, 2011). Bearing testimony of that is the absence of a regulatory body or even set of standards and policies to address and also oversee this industry that encompass both agricultural and industrial processes on a single site.
The fact that it is impossible and even uneconomically viable to produce biofuel alone is another factor that may hinder the realization of biofuel alga as an energy source used on an economic and national scale. First, an individual algae biofuel plant has been ruled out primarily on the ground of being economically unviable. In this regard a business model that has been cited as the ideal for the production of algae biofuel is one that encompasses several business aspects that include co-product, co-processes, and co-location in the production of a range of both energy and non-energy products (Schueneman, 2009).
This therefore require the assembly of an extremely wide range of experts in a wide range of fields that so far as proved hard due to a number of bottleneck that come with the complexity that is envisaged in such a model. The capacity straitjacket can also be blamed for this delay otherwise we would be having a plant producing an algae biofuel and a host of other non-energy product up and running. This is most probably the reason that prompted Ike Levine, the University of Southern Maine's Associate Professor of Natural and Applied Science, to insinuate that "if we had all the knowledge concerning biofuel production on a large scale, algae production on a large scale would be a foregone conclusion (Briggs, 2011)." Two decade are over and we are yet to assemble the kind of knowledge that Levine considered at the time up to the task of running the production of several products that include among others, bio-plastics, nutriceuticals, drugs, biomass, food/protein and wastewater treatment. A further reinforcement of the complexity of production of biofuel can be seen in the fact that it production, which as we have seen can not be conducted alone, may mean producing something entirely different from algae biofuel in the initial stages.
The growing and harvesting of algae at a national scale is likely to bring about water shortage that in itself is worse than a shortage of energy. It will be ironical and a demonstration of misplaced priority to trade place the requirement for energy with that of water. The growth and subsequent harvesting of algae might not have a major impact on fresh water to a large extent, however it is no doubt going to negatively affect the price paid by water consumers in the urban areas (Briggs, 2011). This negative effect will come in form of evaporation that will definitely define this growth and harvesting of algae. According to Michael, who doubles up as a managing partner and managing director of Proteus Environment Technologies, the increased sunlight and prolonged growing season of algae will no doubt have a major impact on the water levels and prices especially on urban dwellers. This boils down to what I have liked with sacrificing a basic commodity like water, and food in extension, with a seemingly less basic energy.
Another limiting factor that Michael has cited constrain concerns the sitting of the project (Briggs, 2011). According to him there exists a shortage of the appropriate land (flat and arable land) suitable for the project, which essentially has been brought about by requisite characteristics that are required for such a land. For instance, in the United States the vast majority of the 57 million acres of flat land that fits the bill of constructing an algae biofuel project lacks the required rainfall levels to sustain this kind of a project. The desert land in the United States which is mostly flat the way an algae project would require has very high temperatures at night and low moisture to create a conducive environment for algae growth. This further shows the challenges that algae biofuel production is likely to face not just in the United States but almost the world over. Unfortunately a proper evaluation through grading of land scattered all over the United States will add on the already soaring costs of the project, thereby further reinforcing the idea that is in not viable under the circumstances.
Michael further recommended the designing of a proper and robust system and processes that have been tested and proved appropriate in order to minimize inherent risk and uncertainties for the proper maturity of the industry. Once again this will require additional pilot projects, R & D, and additional acres of production to establish what works and what does not work (Briggs, 2011).
Getting lab-cultured algae is not always very easy which another is of the myriads of the bottlenecks that stand in the way exploiting algae as an alternative source of energy. Growing and harvesting of algae is another straightjacket in this endeavor that ought to be addressed before we can even think of making algae as an alternative source of energy. The major problem in growing algae rest in the fact that in any kind of pond where algae is being grown only about a quarter of the algae will be receiving the sufficient solar radiation, which therefore mean that the ability of any particular pond to grow algae rest in its surface area and not its volume.
Environmental hazards brought by algae biofuel production are another thing that has to be addressed before it potential to wean-off the world the oil dependence (Schueneman, 2009). The final stage in the algae biofuel production that involves converting fats (lipids) into biodiesel has been confirmed as generally harmless, however the actual growing of microalgae in the ponds is yet top be certified as safe to the environment. Production of microalgae in open pond has also been noted to have its drawbacks. For instance, the required algae (high-yield, high-lipid) have been found to be contaminated if for some reason they are grown in open field. This contamination is primarily coming from the invasion of the pond n=by the local species which cannot be avoided in open pond. The bioreactor which has been found to be a solution to that problem has however been found to be significantly expensive, a situation that has been likened with the cost differences that can be found in conventional farming and framing in hot-house. While open ponds can get light from the sunlight a bioreactors has to be installed with expensive lighting together with equally expensive covering.
From the above it is no doubt that algae biofuel is not a complete solution to the need to have an alternative of oil energy which is increasingly becoming an unreliable source of energy. Just as Dr. Benemann observes replacing oil with algae as a source of energy is simply next to impossible irrespective of the hope and hype that has been generated. The only hope that can be found in algae is by becoming part of the energy of our energy portfolio but not a sizeable alternative to oil in the production of energy.