Algae Fuel - Environmental Impact

Environmental Impact

In comparison with terrestrial-based biofuel crops such as corn or soybeans, microalgal production results in a much less significant land footprint due to the higher oil productivity from the microalgae than all other oil crops. It can also be grown on marginal lands useless for ordinary crops, and it can use water from salt aquifers that is not useful for agriculture or drinking. Their production also requires no external subsidies of insecticides or herbicides, removing any risk of generating associated pesticide waste streams. Furthermore, compared to fuels like diesel and petroleum, the combustion of algal biofuel does not produce any sulfur oxides, and produces a reduced amount of carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons, and reduced emission of harmful pollutants.

Studies have determined that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, have the capability of reducing CO2 emissions by up to 80%. Since plant sources of biofuels production simply do not have the production capacity to meet the current energy requirement, other alternatives such as microalgae have been proposed. An algae-based system could capture approximately 80% of the CO2 emitted from a power plant when sunlight is available. Although this CO2 will later be released into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned, it is important to remember that this CO2 would have entered the atmosphere regardless. The possibility of reducing total CO2 emissions therefore lies in the prevention of the release of CO2 from fossil fuels.

Microalgae production also includes the ability to use saline waste or waste CO2 streams as an energy source. This opens a new strategy to produce biofuel in conjunction with wastewater treatment in order to get reclaimed water. When used in a microalgal bioreactor, harvested microalgae will contain significant quantities of organic compounds as well as heavy metal contaminants absorbed from wastewater streams that would otherwise be directly discharged into surface and ground-water. Moreover, this process also allows the recovery of phosphorus from waste, which is an essential but scarce element in nature – the reserves of which are estimated to have depleted in the last 50 years.

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