Microalgae are slimy, tiny and green, but they could provide significant solutions to the energy crisis. Scientists are looking to these eukaryotes as a possible alternative energy source that could help countries wean their dependence on pollutant-producing fossil fuels. As we become aware of the environmental degradation that fossil fuel reliance has caused, there is a new race to perfect an efficient means of converting microalgae into biofuels.
Jonathan Trent and his team are at the forefront of this innovation. They’ve developed a system for turning wastewater into energy with the help of some unicellular creatures. Using specialized microalgae that feed off wastewater and carbon dioxide, Trent’s system kills two birds with one stone; it eliminates polluting wastewater off the coastlines of our major cities and then generates biofuels.
This 90-acre Keahole Point algae farm in Hawaii is one of the largest in the U.S.
Living in specialized plastic membranes that filter in wastewater and CO2, the microalgae produce water and concentrated biomass that can be used for fuel, fertilizer and animal feed. This system of harvesting microalgae biomass creates fuel at a much higher rate per acre per year than its more commonly known biofuel counterparts, such as soy and corn. Also, being biodegradable, algae won’t have any ill effects on the environment if its plastic membrane were to rupture, unlike other biofuel crops that use harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
But as good as microalgae for biofuel use sounds, energy needed for production currently outweighs energy outputs. Incorporating other renewable energy technologies into microalgae cultivation is a potential method for sharing input costs to get higher energy rewards.
Trent’s system offers an interesting approach for integrating renewable energy technologies a sustainable energy park. Changing our conception of energy production from individual systems to systems that incorporate many different technologies — wind, solar and microalgae — is perhaps the most interesting insight from Trent’s lecture. As he puts it, “what is required for sustainability is integration more than innovation.”
So often we hear that green technologies don’t produce enough energy compared to what they use, which is why fossil fuels dominate the energy industry. But we can make more energy efficient green technologies.
The Upshot is that we need to integrate the renewable energy innovations we already have.