Some of the very earliest organisms to appear on our planet used solar energy to consume carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen. These waterborne organisms, now the great family of algae, are the tools with which Gaia made our oxygen-rich atmosphere, and enabled plants and animal life to appear. In fact, when James Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis the idea that all living matter on the planet functions like a single organism he singled the algae out for special mention.
While the greenhouse effect is mankind’s big future threat (and in evolutionary terms is just around the corner), right now we also face the scary world of post-Peak Oil. Both of these threats are simply logical outcomes of civilisation’s brief addiction to solid, liquid and gaseous fossil carbon fuels. Ironically, most of these fossil fuels began as single-celled algae, which after bacteria, make up the largest component of biomass on this planet.
In anticipation of Peak Oil, Europe, Canada and the US are now furiously developing various liquid and gaseous fuel technologies from every form of waste biomass imaginable wheat stalks, cottonseed hulls, corn stover (the stalks that remain after the corn has been harvested), bagasse (sugar cane waste after the juice is extracted), wood wastes, and more.
In Australia, however, we still mostly fiddle as the fossil fuels burn.
Many would have read about geosequestration, and perhaps seen the recent ABC TV Catalyst documentary on it. It involves ‘scrubbing’ the exhaust gases of coal-fired thermal power stations with a high efficiency chemisorbent. The gases are then re-extracted and compressed into a liquid, which is piped into deep geologic reservoirs or ocean floor sediments with the hope that it will not seep out again for a very long time.
Geosequestration is going to be very expensive, difficult and risky. Long development lead times are inevitable. Risks will be high. What would happen if a pipeline or bore casing carrying bulk liquid carbon dioxide ruptured and the countervailing pressures were insufficient to contain it?
But all is not lost. To those who look carefully enough, Gaia often reminds us that the most likely saviour from today’s environmental threats will be those very same organisms that came before us, and are actually the original source of both our breathable atmosphere and our current energy supply: the humble algae. They are still around, thank goodness.
Mostly single-celled, algae are already capable of very high rates of carbon dioxide uptake and growth. They can range in oil content from 6 to 50 per cent, and starch content from 40 to 94 per cent. Corn, the primary feedstock for bioethanol production, by contrast, only contains about 66 per cent starch and 3 to 4 per cent oil. Algae farming can produce 28 times more biodiesel per hectare than conventional oilseed crops.
Moreover, we already know algae’s simple genomes so well that we could manipulate their biochemical behaviour and composition in many ways.
A number of companies are developing algae bioreactors to get around the problem of the large areas of shallow lagoon that would be required to treat all the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides) from, say, large coal-fired power stations. Substantial progress is being made.
The bioreactor design of GreenFuel Technologies Corporation [LINK: http://www.greenfuelonline.com/] of Cambridge Massachusetts, appears inexpensive to manufacture and operate, and GreenFuel has developed a mathematical model for optimally exposing algae to sunlight, with patents pending. One of the directors and backers of GreenFuel is Dr Bob Metcalfe who helped build the internet and invented Ethernet the dominant local area network (LAN) standard.
On 3 August, GreenFuel signed a licensing agreement for Australia and New Zealand marketing rights with the Victor Smorgon Group. The agreement provides the Group (now owned by OneSteel the leading metals distribution company in Australia) with an exclusive license to distribute, install and operate GreenFuel’s Emissions-to-Biofuels (E2B) proprietary technology for growing, harvesting, and processing biomass and products derived from algae throughout Australia and New Zealand. Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
Data from field testing of the GreenFuel system in 2004 and 2005 showed a mean carbon dioxide reduction of 82.3 per cent on sunny days and of 50.1 per cent on cloudy days. Nitrogen oxides emissions dropped 85.9 per cent on both sunny and cloudy days.
I do not belittle the important role that woody biomass and other biomass-derived waste fuels can and will continue to play in helping Australia survive and prosper in the post-Peak Oil world. However, I would argue that for a country like Australia which has developed a relatively sophisticated agro-industrial base, has high sunlight levels, lots of spare, flat land and groundwaters of poor quality the best technologies for adjusting to, and exploiting, the new environmental realities must be algae-based.
Only algae offer a truly comprehensive solution to the energy demands of a post-Peak Oil world.
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