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Why Algae Could One Day Replace Fossil Fuels

algal biofuels

Companies and governments around the world are investing in algal biofuels as a renewable energy source.

It’s slimy. It’s green. And one day, it could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

Since 2009, researchers from Synthetic Genomes, Inc. and ExxonMobile have collaborated in a quest to convert algae into a sustainable, commercially-viable biofuels. Now, the joint venture has announced a breakthrough that allows algae to produce two times as much lipid oil — the key ingredient that could one day replace fossil fuels.

It’s still a proof of concept, but researcher Imad Ajjawi calls it, “a significant milestone in establishing the foundation for a path that leads to eventual commercialization of algal biofuels.”

What Are Algal Biofuels?

Algae is a family of plant-like organisms that comes in all shapes, sizes, and colours. When you think of algae, you’re probably picturing the slippery stuff that collects on river rocks. But the algae family also includes funguses, mosses, and giant, leafy kelp. It comes in shades of red, green, brown, and even purple.

It doesn’t take much to take algae grow. Most species feed on carbon dioxide and release oxygen via photosynthesis. All it takes is water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. Unlike the fuels we’re trying to replace, these resources are in all abundance here on planet earth.

About half of algae is imposed of something called lipid oil. Scientists have been working since the 1970s to use algae-produced lipid oil as a fuel alternative. Previously, it was difficult to get enough lipid oil out of the algae to make it a commercially viable venture.

That’s where this new breakthrough comes in. Together, Synthetic Genomes, Inc. and ExxonMobile have used gene editing technology to genetically modify strains of algae to produce twice as much lipid oil as they do in the wild. Most importantly, the change doesn’t impact the algae’s growth in any other way, giving it potential to become a wide-scale biofuel source.

The Advantages of Algal Biofuels

Today, more than 20 countries, including the United States and China, are investing in algal biofuel research. Leading airlines and aviation companies are also optimistic about its potential for a cleaner, greener fuel.

Science writer Julian Cribb predicts that algal biofuels could become a $50 billion industry in the future. “Fossil oil comes from algae that died millions of years ago. Today it makes far better sense to grow the oil fresh, using living water plants,” he writes.

The advantages of algae are numerous. To start, it grows naturally in just about every climate around the world. Sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide are abundant and (except for water in some cases) free. In the best conditions, algae can grow almost limitlessly.

With fossil fuels being depleted worldwide, we know we can’t rely on a petro-based fuel products forever. Algae-derived biofuel is a promising alternative green energy source.

Which Big Companies Set Clean Energy Targets?

clean energy targets

More companies are committing to fight climate change and set targets for clean energy.

Sustainability isn’t a fringe issue anymore.

Thanks to heightened awareness and public education efforts, more and more people recognize the importance of reducing carbon emissions and shifting to clean energy sources. Climate change deniers are in the minority.

Luckily, big companies are catching on when it comes to climate change.

According to Fast Company, Apple, Bank of America, Facebook, Google, and Walmart are among the major corporations that have committed to moving to 100% renewable power. Hundreds of others have adopted internationally-agreed clean energy targets to reducing greenhouse gasses. Half of the 2016 Fortune 500 companies have set targets to reduce greenhouse gases, increase energy efficiency, or make greater use of renewable energy sources.

In total, 72% of consumer-facing companies have set targets for clean energy. Other industries are also doing well, with 60% of real estate and 57% of IT companies setting at least one target.

Lance Pierce, president of CDP North America (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), says public pressure is a factor in this change. “There is a lot of awareness among consumers and a lot of demand, and companies are responsive to that,” he told Fast Company.

For these companies, fighting climate change is becoming a vital part of their corporate responsibility.

But not all industries are on board. Energy companies are notably lagging when it comes to setting targets. In fact, the number of companies with one or more energy target has fallen from 25% three years ago to a dismal 11% today.

Pierce says many energy companies claim there needs to be a “level playing field”, such as a national or international climate agreement, that holds all energy companies to the same standard. In other words, they’re waiting for the government to step in and force their hand before they change how they do business.

Unfortunately, with the current administration, fighting climate change is not a priority.

Still, this report is a bright spot over overall. While the Trump Administration is working to undo much of its predecessor’s clean energy and climate regulations, American corporations are moving in the opposite direction.