Green Algae by Micropix CC BY-SA 3.0
On the cusp of St. Patrick’s Day, if you’re aiming to add a bit o' the Irish to your favorite beverage, take a moment to consider how much energy we might get out of a different sort of green drink – namely, a swirling batch of microscopic, sunlight-eating algae! A timely thought it may be, given a recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calling for investment in alternative energy, www.leaderpost.com/technology/Saskatchewan+must+turn+renewables+Report/10892564/story.html
In 2013, scientists developed a way to speed up the process of making algae into biofuel, essentially reducing the time required from millions of years to less than an hour. This is an important step towards making the process more competitive in economic terms, and it comes with fewer concerns about waste products or the notion of growing food for fuel. The scientists also found a way to minimize the amount of energy consumed by their “extreme pressure cooker” by feeding some of the generated heat back into the process. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/scientists-turn-algae-into-crude-oil-in-less-than-an-hour-180948282/?no-ist
Algae may also be valuable as a way to generate electricity. Early research on this, from 2010, led to methods that allowed scientists to tap directly into the electrical currents associated with photosynthesis http://inhabitat.com/stanford-scientists-harvest-electricity-from-algae-photosynthesis/. The outputs per cell of algae were pretty small, but more recent techniques have shown that algae may be a feasible basis for high-energy, microbial fuel cells (Rashid et al., Science of the Total Environment, 456-457: 91-94, 2013).
So, if you’re inclined, consider raising a glass to the wonders of algae!