Scientists at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom are conducting research into ways to use algae to not only remove global warming-causing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also in the synthesis of new biofuels that do not compete with food production.
Algae is being eagerly investigated for its ability to remove vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turning it into oxygen. It was this process that originally led to the creation of the Earth's current atmospheric composition and allowed for life as we know it. It was also the decomposition of algae on the ocean floor that eventually led to many of today's existing petroleum deposits.
"So we are harvesting sunshine directly using algae, then we are extracting that stored energy in the form of oil from the alga and then using that to make fuels and other non-petroleum based products," said Steve Skill of Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
Plymouth scientists are not the only ones working on turning algae into viable fuel. Companies trying to get into the game include Sapphire Energy, Origin Oil, BioCentric Energy and PetroAlgae. Japan Airlines has already test-flown a plane fueled with a combination of biofuels (some derived from algae) and conventional jet fuel.
Part of the appeal of algae biofuel is the same as that of other biofuels -- because plants absorb carbon dioxide while they grow, they are thought to make up for the carbon dioxide emissions when fuels derived from them are burned. Algae has the added benefit of growing well in places unsuitable for human food production, this making it less likely to affect food prices as corn-derived ethanol has been accused of doing. It also grows 20-30 times faster than most food crops.
Scientists from Plymouth and elsewhere are also investigating algae for its ability to absorb the carbon dioxide given off by the burning of fossil fuels. Brazilian company MPX Energia is already planning to start using algae to capture emissions from a coal plant as soon as 2011.