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Algae for Food and Fuel - A Panacea?

Arizona-based energy company, PetroSun Biofuels recently opened a commercial algae-to-biofuels farm on the Gulf Coast near Harlingen, Texas. The farm consists of 1,100 acres of saltwater ponds, 20 acres of which will be dedicated to researching and developing an environmental jet fuel.

PetroSun's plans to extract algal oil on-site at the farms and transport it to company biodiesel refineries via barge, rail or truck. In 2008 the company plans to open more farms in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mexico, Brazil and Australia.

Boeing is reported to be working with alternative fuel developers from around the world to accelerate alternatives to jet fuel, which has dramatically increased in price and is threatening the viability of airlines. Continental said it will conduct biofuel test flights next year and Virgin Atlantic has already flown a 747 with a partial biofuel mixture. Algae-based fuels are also being considered for military applications.

Of all the options for future jet biofuel production, algae are considered the most viable. Algae yield 30 times more energy per acre than any other source of biofuel and don't require fresh water, arable land, or consumable food, giving a distinct advantage over ethanol. PetroSun asserts that an area the size of Maryland could produce enough algae biofuel to satisfy all fuel needs of the United States.

The Texas farm is expected to produce at least 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million pounds of biomass per year.

Meanwhile, NRG Energy is testing a process involving algae at a coal-fired electrical power plant in Louisiana. While coal as a fuel is plentiful in the U.S. and therefore used extensively as a fuel for power stations, burning it produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Algae, however, absorb and thrive on CO2. So, instead of releasing the carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, they are fed to algae, thus cutting down considerably on greenhouse gas emissions.

Algae are harvested daily and can be used for conversion to biofuel or animal feed supplements. Roughly a third of all carbon dioxide releases come from power generation, with coal being the primary culprit. So, using algae to absorb carbon dioxide will go a long way towards cleaning up the environment.

Paul Dickerson, chief operating officer of the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy finds it hard not to get excited about algae. "Its basic requirements are few: carbon dioxide, sun and water. Algae can flourish in non-arable land or in dirty water, and when it does flourish, its potential oil yield per acre is unmatched by any other terrestrial feedstock."

Algae are also a food source that could alleviate world hunger. The blue-green variety in particular, is considered by some nutrition experts to be the perfect food. It contains all essential amino acids as well as most of the non-essential ones, forming a complete protein. It also contains all vitamins other than D and E, as well as a host of minerals needed by the body in easily digested form. Available in health food stores, blue-green algae are sometimes referred to as brain food because people taking them routinely report increased mental alertness, improved memory and greater ability to communicate clearly.

Though algae may be capable of handling several of mankind's troubled areas, fossil fuels are still the predominant source of energy and there is a need to use those fuels effectively. Such concerns have led to the founding of Biofriendly Corporation, whose Green Plus liquid fuel catalyst provides a cleaner, more linear burn of fuel in internal combustion engines, thus reducing harmful emissions and increasing torque and fuel economy.

Author, Peter Verhoeff, contributes articles on environmental issues for Biofriendly Corporation.

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