A recent study was conducted to see how environmentally friendly is growing algae for fuel. The study found that, when compared to crops like corn and switchgrass, algae actually has a larger environmental footprint.
However, before people begin to take this to mean that we shouldn’t use algae as a fuel source, people should read the study (which can be found here) and see that algae isn’t all that bad. First off, the study only takes into account the growth aspects of the crops, not the actual conversion into fuel. If the conversion process is taken into consideration, thing might look differently for algae.
For example, if the energy associated with converting switchgrass to ethanol is quite a bit higher than the energy required to convert algae to biodiesel, then the high cultivation impacts of algae may be acceptable. It would also be reasonable to expect that transportation logistics and the temporal elements of biomass production and fuel conversion could influence the impacts of the overall fuel cycle… The authors anticipate that such analysis will find algae to be easier to convert into liquid fuels than some of the other biomass sources studies here because of their inherently high lipid content, semi-steady-state production, and suitability in a variety of climates.
Additionally, the study shows that combining algae growth with wastewater treatment can significantly reduce the environmental impacts and costs of growing algae.
These data demonstrate that algae’s life cycle burdens can be substantially reduced via use of partially treated wastewater to supplant chemical fertilizers.
Use of wastewater effluent as pond medium could significantly reduce not only the need for chemical fertilizers and their associated life cycle burdens but also the use of freshwater during algae cultivation.
Lastly, and probably the most important thing to remember whenever a study compares algae with more traditional crops is that fact that growing algae as a crop is a fairly new thing.
While it seems unlikely that dramatic improvements in corn, canola, or switchgrass cultivation will occur in the near future, significant improvements in algae cultivation could increase the favorability of energy production from algae over the next several decades.
Since algae cultivation is new, there is a lot of room for improvements. These improvements over the next couple of years can potentially allow algae to continue to gain the upper hand over the more traditional biofuel crops.
Therefore, while studies likes these are important and definitely point out the current problems in the field, one shouldn’t take it to heart since the field is constantly developing new methods of cultivation. Who knows, the problems listed in this study could all be addressed in the next year or two.