Algae, although a nuisance to many people, may provide the answer to our energy crisis. Researchers, in private sectors, are investigating on the competency of these abundant organisms in producing biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel. If their small-scale work comes to fruition, it may well provide the world with a possible substitute for fossil fuels.
One such group of researchers is LiveFuels, which is a nationwide partnership of laboratories and scientists devoted to converting algae into biofuel by the year 2010. They are currently looking for the best species of algae to convert to oil and also to convert them to oil at the lowest possible cost. In addition, finding the most efficient process of extracting fats and oil out of algae is also crucial. According to them, algae have a high oil yield per unit area of 1,000 to 20,000 gallons of oil per acre. This is 7 to 30 times more than the closest alternative, Chinese tallow, which has a oil yield per unit area of 699 gallons. Hence, according to theory, the United States can totally stop their imports of oil if they grow sufficient algae on 20 million acres of land which is possible due to hardiness of algae.
In addition to their high oil yield per unit area, those microscopic algae(microalgae) have comparably higher growth rates than virtually every crop. Investigations on algae for large-scale production of oil are primarily targeted at these microalgae; microscopic, plant-like organisms which are able to photosynthesize and are smaller than 2 mm across, including the diatoms and cyanobacteria; contrary to macroscopic algae, e.g. seaweed. The partiality towards microalgae is predominantly because it has a less sophisticated physiology, rapid growth rate, and high oil composition (for certain class). Currently, a few profit-making corporations that are into large scale algal-cultivation facilities are considering to co-operate with existing infrastructures, such as coal power plants or sewage treatment plants. This tie-up not only supplies the necessary inputs for the algal-cultivation system, such as carbon dioxide and nutrients, but it also converts those refuse into useful inputs for the industries cultivating algae.
However, there are several problems limiting the use of this technology. Scientists are having difficulties finding a species of algae that have high fat composition, rapid growth rate, easy to reap and economical farming mechanism (i.e., kind of photobioreactor) that is most appropriate to that type of algae. Some of these issues are basically what LiveFuels are working on now.