Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Algae’s Strange Bedfellows

Currently, there is (a minor) debate as to whether algae is a plant or not. Most do not include them as plants because they lack complexity in the cell, and do not share a few (but key) characteristics with plants. (However, that does not stop my old Bot Prof from asking what the oldest plant is and the “correct” answer is a type of green algae…grrrr)
Anyways, I digress… a new exciting branch of research is experimenting with producing oils from algae to be used instead of traditional fossil fuels (which ironically enough is probably fossilized algae too!) Craig Venter (of the Human Genome Project fame) is one of the leading scientists engineering algae to create the biosynthetic oils. However, he is catching some bad PR because of his strange bedfellow, ExxonMobil. This company, alike most of the prominent gas & oil companies around, are not too concerned with their energy gathering and environmental use. So, let’s critically think about what they are trying to do and see if this is a good idea or not:

(Photo on Left is of the Kelp Forest at Monetery Bay, Calif)

Using Algae as a Biosynthetic Oil Producer

Renewable resource – Algae takes little to grow and will produce lots considering size
Use excess fertilizer – Can create a market for using excess fertilizer and maybe even creating fertilizer as a byproduct (making less ammonia using Haber-Boscht?)
Defer energy crisis – could also be considered a con because this will prevent people from reducing the amount of energy they are using with their lifestyles. Because most North Americans, Australians, and Europeans have a resource-rich lifestyle, and refuse to reduce the amount of resources they are using, this also creates a large inequality with other countries around the world. Most developing countries will expect to have the same benefits as the post-industrial countries.

Continuation of Bad Energy Sources – Using algae will make other renewable resource energy sources such as photovoltaics and wind less attractive because of fluctuation. If people are lazy and choose the easiest type of energy source, they will not change their habits and therefore, problems will still exist.
Bioengineering – Plants have a nasty history of becoming less efficient as they become more bioengineered. Also, it creates a possible bottle-neck of genetics which becomes a possible endangerment of the whole industry if a disease outbreak occurred. Remember the one great maxim that everyone learns in Intro Bio: Genetic Diversity is Important. (For numerous reasons, but that’s another post for the future)
No Net Carbon Sink – It cannot be considered a carbon sink because if creating oil & gas as an energy source, it will be released in the near future. However, if used for creating other petroleum products that will be a sink for a long time to come (plastics, etc), it may be considered a sink, but as a fuel its not. That is the problem we have now is too much carbon (and frankly a lot of other greenhouse gasses that everyone ignores like methane and NOx’s and SOx’s).

Also, another con would have to do with the prominent Oil & Gas company. Would they be willing to clean up after themselves? What happens when this bioengineered algae escapes (ooooh good plot line for a novel), and oil slicks cover the water and suffocate many organisms (less air-water interactions mean less O2 dissolved in the water), or create a huge algae bloom and creates more dead zones in the oceans. Mmmmm. I have great respect for Craig Venter, lets see what he'll do.

Borrell, Brendan. 60-Second Science Blog. “Clean dreams or pond scum? ExxonMobil and Craig Venter team up in quest for algae-based biofuels”.

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