The Hulk of all Biofuels: How Marine Algae could save the World


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What do the Hulk and marine algae have in common? You may think this is a set up for an excruciatingly bad joke but you would be wrong, these two things actually have more in common that you might think. Both are green, have limitless sources of energy and have the potential to save the world. Marine algae could just be the future of alternative fuel.

The world around us is changing. More than ever before global warming is apparent and we need to do something about it. The creation of alternative fuels, meaning fuels not derived from crude oil, including bioethanol is one example of the way science is looking for solutions. To produce bioethanol sugars must be sourced from living things and reacted with a type of bacteria. Seems easy enough? But finding a suitable sugar source that is ethical, efficient and economically viable has proved a serious challenge. In 2011 scientists at Sogang University in Seoul conducted an exciting new study that puts forward marine algae as a promising contender.

Studies such as this must be funded in order to realise the potential superpowers that lie within marine algae as an alternative fuel source for the future.


Photography: UC San Diego

The research paper published in Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology looked at two key aspects of the production of bioethanol from marine algae: the pre-treatment process in which the needed sugars are extracted from the algae and the reaction process involving converting these sugars into bioethanol. In both cases the scientists were aiming to optimise efficiency and gains. The scientists found that the process under which the most sugar was extracted from the algae was simpler than the processes needed for extraction from other sources. This is due to marine algae having a less complex make up than previous sources such as corn, suggesting that marine algae could be more economically viable.

Using their newly developed bioethanol production method the scientists were able to obtain 0.40 grams of ethanol per gram of algae. This is an encouraging 0.15 grams more than had been experimentally produced before. Combined, the results of this study demonstrate the exciting potential of marine algae in solving problems facing bioethanol including efficiency and economic viability. The paper concludes with the claim that marine algae have great potential and could lead to new possibilities in energy production.

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Photography: Ashley Cooper/Ashley Cooper/Corbis

What makes marine algae special?
As mentioned in the research paper 20-30% of marine algae mass is essentially sugar that can be extracted and used for bioethanol production. This means that marine algae could potentially produce 30 times the amount of fuel per acre as any land crop, as discovered by the US Department of Energy. Previous sources used for bioethanol including corn have caused controversy due to their use of land that could otherwise be used for the production of food. Other benefits include its near carbon neutrality and ability to grow without freshwater.

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