How Algae Could Change The Fossil Fuel Industry
Seeker takes a closer look at the very exciting potential behind algae fuel and food production.
It's no secret that Earth's longevity depends largely on finding an alternative to fossil fuels. Not only are fossil fuels greatly contributing to climate change, but they're a non-renewable resource that will eventually run out faster than they can be replenished.
Great strides have been made in recent years towards using renewable sources of energy, like electric vehicles, solar panels, wind energy and even algae. It might seem surprising, but algae is one of the most powerful sources of energy we have access to on Earth. When dried algae is ground into a powder and refined, oil can be extracted from it. The result is nearly identical to traditional gasoline, but with far more benefits.
Dave Hazlebeck, CEO of Global Algae Innovations, gave Seeker a tour of his algae farm in Kauai, Hawaii, and explained how his company is revolutionizing sustainable energy. "The fuel that we're producing is exactly the same in terms of performance as gasoline or diesel or jet, it's just a lot cleaner. I think the big difference is that [with] all the other biofuels, you're growing it and you're just getting biofuel. In this case, for every gallon of biofuel you get 10 pounds of food with it," Hazlebeck said.
Hazlebeck believes his company is on the path to completely change the way we currently produce both oil and food. Not only can algae create biofuel, it can also be used to create animal feed. Currently, most animal and fish feed is made from corn or soy, which both use more water and energy to grow than algae.
"There's studies that show with algae grown to replace animal feed, you could actually solve global warming to a large extent," Hazlebeck told Seeker.
Algae can be used to create food for humans as well. New Wave Foods in Northern California created fake shrimp made from algae and other plants that actually looks, smells and even tastes like real shrimp. Because it's made from algae, the shrimp substitute also has the added benefit of being low in fat and extremely rich in nutrients, something that corn and soy are severely lacking.
Growing algae for oil and food could also significantly reduce deforestation. According to Scientific American, the yields from algae are far more significant than crops like corn or soy. If all the fuel in the country was replaced with biofuel from corn, we would need a facility three times the size of the continental U.S. to produce it. But for algae, we would need a facility the size of Maryland. Additionally, algae can produce 40 times more food per acre than traditional crops.
While showing the Seeker team around GAI's Hawaii facility, Hazlebeck explained that the algae farm is next to a power plant, which puts it in a very unique position. "[It] allows us to capture carbon dioxide and avoid that discharge and reuse it, and that prevents it from going into the atmosphere and causing global warming," he said. "If every power plant had an algae farm next to it, it could potentially solve the global warming issue entirely."
The environmental benefits of algae are impressive, and because algae can grow in both freshwater and seawater, it's also very easy to produce. So, does that mean we'll all be filling our cars with algae gas at the pumps very soon?
Not just yet. Hazlebeck and his team have run into a few setbacks since they began scaling up their operations. The most prohibitive issue has been the cost.
When Global Algae Innovations began, a gallon of oil produced from algae was about $30 a gallon -- 10 times higher than it needs to be to work as a viable alternative to fossil fuel. But Hazlebeck and his team didn't give up, and they've continued to come up with solutions to decrease the cost. As of now, they almost have algae oil down to only $2 - $3 a gallon.
Once GAI can get their algae production up to scale, Hazlebeck believes it will change the geopolitics of the world. "A lot of the reasons we have wars are because of fights over resources or the need for more resources. By creating a more equitable distribution with countries being able to make their own, it should lead to a more stable and peaceful world," he told Seeker.
That's really the point of it all for Hazlebeck and GAI. They don't want to be the only company doing this; they want everyone working together because they truly believe using algae as a fuel and food source will change the world.
-- Molly Fosco