Fuels From Pond Scum

Usually the term “pond scum” is derogatory, implying that the person characterized by it is one of the lowest forms of life. But now pond scum might win new respect because a wide variety of prestigious scientists, entrepreneurs and institutions believe that it could be the answer to the spiraling costs of fossil-based fuels.

The obvious exemplar of that attitude is the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO), recently formed to help accelerate the development and commercial application of algae biomass. Though very low on the evolutionary scale, algae have shown significant potential to address some of the world’s most pressing issues, including climate and pollution concerns, alternative fuels and global economic development, according to the founders of the new organization.

As any of you who have watched algae take over your garden pond or swimming pool know, the various types of algae are among the fastest-growing and most productive plants in the world. The unique characteristics of algae enable them to be developed for a number of uses; this fact has spawned the discipline of algaculture, a form of aquaculture involving the farming of species of algae. While seaweed is included among the types of algae referred to as “macroalgae,” most of the algal-farming development work has concentrated on microalgae, otherwise known as phytoplankton, microphytes and planktonic algae. Seaweed is harvested wild from the oceans of the world, but microalgae can be successfully cultivated much more easily. In fact, it’s hard to stop them from growing.

According to the ABO, algae are an ideal low-cost, renewable and environmentally progressive raw material that can be converted into biofuels such as biodiesel, which can be used in conventional diesel engines with little or no modifications. The strains of algae can grow rapidly (sometimes doubling in biomass in as little as a few hours), require limited nutrients and can annually deliver up to 2,000 to 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre of nonarable land.

There is a wealth of good news on the environmental front as well. Algae do not require freshwater to thrive (witness their successful growth in the world’s oceans), so cultivation of algae will not compete for limited supplies of freshwater. In addition, algae can also be used to clean wastewater and recycle greenhouse gases such as CO2, NOx and SOx, literally sucking pollutants and potentially harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their growth cycle while providing the feedstocks to create fuels. The ABO suggests that algal cultivation can allow many nations of the world to become self-sufficient when it comes to energy, without infringing upon arable land.

 “Given the social, economic and environmental possibilities for algae and the growing number of companies, technologies and products being developed to address them, it is becoming increasingly important to harness their potential for use across multiple industries now,” said Billy Glover, managing director of Environmental Strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and also co-chair of the ABO steering committee. “Boeing recognizes that algae biomass holds tremendous potential for use as jet fuel, and it fits into our plan to guide aviation toward commercially viable and sustainable fuel sources -- fuels with substantially smaller greenhouse gas footprints that do not compete with food or require unacceptable quantities of land and freshwater resources.”

The group will gather for the second Annual Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle on October 23 and 24, 2008.