Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Algae, the Future of Biofuels?

Over the past few years biofuels have made their way into mainstream media and have captured the attention of opposing parties on the matter. Biofuels are in essence anything that is deemed to be "CO2 neutral" some examples are; animal and plant waste, straw, corn and wood residue, just to name a few. The topic, which is of importance in this article, is that of the use of algae-based biofuels. The article in review was written by the Pike Research group and is called “Algae-Based Biofuels Production to reach 61 million gallons per year by 2020”. The article provides an in-depth analysis of global clean technology markets. The author’s standpoint on this controversial topic is very pro-biofuel and as you read through this article there is a fair amount of evidence stacked against arguments made in the article. I will be outlining many setbacks to the author’s stated claims as well as inspecting the validity of his evidence. The following paragraph shows some major points expressed in the article and whether or not they are justifiable.

One of the first major points that the article states that seems to catch your attention almost immediately is that of the amount of revenue possible due to the growth and expansion of this technology. It states the following:

The production on this specific type of biofuel will reach 61 million gallons per year and a market value of $1.3 billion by 2020 (Pike Research, 2010).

This statement seems to be quite a lofty goal for a field, which has only been around for 6 years and was created by a man named Jim Sears in his garage. Also to refute this statement it is found to be true that algae based biofuels have a carbon footprint of 320 grams per mega joule (equal to that of fuel used in our cars!). It’s also known that algal biofuels are very expensive to produce and studies have not shown that they can be produced cheaply compared to that of petroleum based fuels. There hasn’t been any concrete evidence stating that this will be a viable billion-dollar industry in just 10 years. People have been saying that algae-based biofuels will be able to overshadow petroleum products in just a few years this is where we lead into our next statement.

As stated in the first paragraph Algae-based biofuels are supposed to generate revenue in the billions the following statement defends that statistic.

“On paper, algae could displace worldwide petroleum use altogether…” (Clint Wheelock, President of Pike Research, 2010).

This quote outlines the fact Clint Wheelock believes that algae production for biofuels could most certainly displace petroleum use altogether, but this is only the fact on paper there are not extenuating circumstances at hand in this part of the quote. As well, it’s a particularly boastful quote at that, stating that one of our biggest resources that we use today, petroleum (a byproduct of fossil fuels) will be taken over by an alternative resource seems extremely unlikely. As it seems this truly is quite an imaginative statement because as the quote continues to say;

“…however, the industry has yet to produce a drop of oil for commercial production,” (Clint Wheelock, President of Pike Research, 2010).

Surprisingly enough the author has decided to input this full quote in the article. This shows that although there is an evident argument being made by the author about the pro’s of using algae-based biofuels they still recognize that it is not fully plausible. Overall this statement wanted to make a bold point that would catch the readers’ attention and with the beginning of the above quote it did just that. The possibility of bio-fuels replacing petroleum based ones may seem conceivable on paper, but when actual numbers are run and real life situations are put into play it doesn’t seem at all feasible. The author’s opinion and two – sided quotes actually occurs more than once in the article, the author goes on to talk about the United States to be at the forefront of production of algae biofuels. Just before he states this there is another quote made by Mr. Wheelock, which slightly refutes the author’s view on the topic.

The third statement I found in this article that could be refuted due to little evidence supporting it talks about the biofuel market growing, but after this statement is made, Mr. Wheelock is quick to add some difficulties with the expansion of this alternative resource.

“…the algae-based biofuels market will grow rapidly once key cost hurdles are overcome, widespread scale-up will be hampered by a number of difficult challenges including access to nutrients, water, and private capital.” (Clint Wheelock, President of Pike Research, 2010).

The above statement shows two main things; (1) Mr. Wheelock is confident in the energy source and believes that the ‘cost hurdles’ that must be overcome are going to be taken care of over time. (2) Mr. Wheelock, although confident in his statement about algae biofuel, still states the numerous challenges that will face this fuel source. Even in stating the challenges facing the fuel source he doesn’t know the magnitude of difficulty these hurdles have in store for algae biofuels. Doing some more in depth research I came across an article, which talks about some of the financial and environmental obstacles this alternative energy source, has to overcome. Firstly, algae can be grown in closed air-lift bioreactors made of transparent tubes; but this is an expensive process and as stated before has a higher carbon footprint than that of fuel we already use in our cars. Secondly the alternative method for growing algae is by growing algae in open ponds. This alternative is much more environmentally friendly, but the downfalls of this method are that, the ponds have a smaller yield compared to that of using the tubes. As well, large amounts of water must be used to allow the algae to grow and when it evaporates more freshwater must be put back into the pond.

In conclusion the author of the article “Algae-Based Biofuels Production to reach 61 million gallons per year by 2020” uses a large amount of inductive logic when making a point. The idea of biofuels being a practical replacement to fossil fuels is indeed a great one; biofuels one day will hopefully take us to new heights in renewable energy and will hopefully help wean us off of petroleum-based products. This is a very optimistic expectation for this newly developed energy but it simply can’t fully replace the use of fossil fuels in just a mere ten years, the idea is simply preposterous. This alternative resource hasn’t even become large enough to be even the slight bit feasible to be at the forefront of renewable energy yet. The production of this resource is simply still in its infancy and needs more than ten years to reach full maturity. Overall the author needed more deductive evidence to back up points. Overall biofuels are an ingenuous way to solve our rising CO2 problems but they must first have more time and money invested in them before they prove suitable for our world’s overconsumption needs.

Works Cited

"Algae-Based Biofuels Production to Reach 61 Million Gallons per Year by 2020." Pike Research. N.p., 27/09/2010. Web. 9 Nov 2010. .

"Biofuels." Habmigern. N.p., 2010. Web. 11/09/2010.

Haag, Amanda L. "Pond-Powered Biofuels: Turning Algae into America's New Energy." Popular Mechanics. N.p., 29/05/2007. Web. 11/09/2010. .

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