by Eileen Weber
For every car ride, bus trip, or vacation par avion, we expel greenhouse gases from fossil fuels into the air. We are heavily dependent on foreign oil. We still use coal as a source of power. We have irreparably changed our climate as a result.
But according to a Washington Post article dated October 20, 2008, there are some companies that are trying to make a difference. Alternative fuels such as ethanol derived from corn or diesel derived from algae are taking center stage.
But fuels based on crops like corn have their own environmental price tag. The farming process of those “macro-crops” uses fossil fuels to get the job done.
Companies like Florida-based PetroAlgae are working hard to find a sustainable solution to the problem. They produce “micro-crops” of algae that are broken down into a fuel source and a protein base. The product can be used to fire up a 747 or it can be extracted as a protein filler for animal feed. And who knows? Rich in amino acids, you may find these protein isolates in your next strawberry smoothie some day.
The crops are environmentally safe and sustainable. They are grown in raised pools with no toxic run-off. Almost all of the water that is used to irrigate the crops is recycled for the next crop. Nothing goes to waste.
According to the PetroAlgae web site, algae-based fuel is functionally identical to fossil fuels. And since the algae micro-crops consume twice their body weight in CO2, they’re carbon neutral as well.
“PetroAlgae differentiates itself by adding physics into the mix,” said Chairman John Scott in the May 2009 edition of Biofuel Digest. “All microcrops love sunlight. Managing the detail of how each micro-crop gets the right sunlight, that’s the real secret sauce in this industry. We increase production output further with scientific and engineering expertise related to nutrition, bioreactor development and the hydrodynamics of mixing. Our proprietary processes for micro-crops result in double the growth compared to other producers.”
The company hopes to have their finished product ready for the open market within the next two years. If they accomplish that goal, they may beat out a major competitor: Exxon Mobil.
According to a New York Times article on July 14th, Exxon Mobil is working on an algae-based fuel to market in as early as five years. They plan to invest $600 million in partnership with a biotech company to develop the product.
Previously, Exxon Mobil has been chastised by environmentalists for scoffing biofuel and other renewable energies, like wind and solar. These days, they seem to be eating their words. And frankly, it’s about time.
There has been great debate about our dependence on fossil fuels. From how much we use to how we can wean ourselves off it, the discussions continue but actual solutions are still out of reach. At best, PetroAlgae may have their product ready in two years. Exxon Mobil has a five to ten year plan. But what do we do in the meantime?
The EU has been producing biofuel and exporting it to us. In fact, the European Biodiesel Board released a report on July 15th that sales rose in 2008. According to Biodiesel Magazine, the EU is “responsible for 65 percent of the world’s biodiesel output.”
The U.S. is rapidly trying to tap into that market. Once again, we’re playing catch-up with Europe.
As of July 14th, reports showed that Alaska Airlines was joining Boeing to boost the development of alternative fuels for jet service. In an article dated July 13th in Seattle’s Puget Sound Business Journal, Boeing was quoted as saying that they are “focused on making renewable fuel sources available that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while lessening commercial aviation's dependence on fossil fuels and potentially reduce aviation sector exposure to fuel price volatility.”
But when one door opens, another closes. If we move toward the promising goal of biofuel, what will that do to our tenuous relationships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia? Essentially, we’re in a co-dependent relationship with a country whose biggest export is oil. And that relationship, albeit a bit rocky, has been one of the few we can consider strong, comparatively speaking, in that area of the globe.
Thinking closer to home, what about the hundreds of people employed by fossil fuel companies? In a shaky economy that has been slow to show signs of recovery, more job loss and unemployment is just one more harbinger of doom.
The trade-off is the impact it will have on the environment. How much longer must we throw gunk in the air before we make a positive change? With alternative sources readily available, why continue our co-dependency? Like any bad break-up, you find someone else and get over it. In this case, we found pond scum. But, ultimately, isn’t that more important than a few happy oil guys?
Photo courtesy of GreenOptimistic.com.