algae biofuelStudies show that corn based ethanol may nearly double greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them.  Does Algae pose the same risks as corn? Are biofuels the wrong way to go when it comes to identifying fuel sources?

by Julia Verdi

In the past, corn has been the most popular feedstock for biofuel. However, with the food vs. fuel argument and the recent 2008 study arguing corn based ethanol may nearly double greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them, ethanol’s popularity may start to fade. So, if corn-based ethanol falls through, what will happen? Will we continue to pursue biofuel in general? And, if so, what kind of feedstock are we going to use?

I believe that biofuel, combined with wind and solar, is a much needed resource in the United States, especially in the transportation sector. In order for the US to have a secure energy future, a cleaner, more efficient biofuel needs to be made for our vehicles.  However, a cleaner and friendlier feedstock than corn must be used for this biofuel, and algae, may very well be the answer.

So, why algae instead of corn?

1) Algae doesn’t need fresh water or land to grow:

Like corn, algae uses sunlight and water to grow. However, unlike corn, which needs to be grown on land that could produce food and needs fresh water, many algae species that grow oil-producing lipids that we need in order to make biofuel, can grow in brackish, salty water.  Therefore, algae would not compete with land that can be used for food or even use fresh water, like corn grown for ethanol does.

2) Algae can reduce its impact on our environment and clean up our waste while it grows:

Another reason algae may be superior to corn, is it actually requires CO2 to grow. So, while it is growing, it could potentially mitigate the  greenhouse gas emissions that it will create when it is turned into biofuel. Algae also have the potential to actually clean up sewage while it grows, so ultimately we could decrease the impact of biofuel in our atmosphere, find a better way to throw out our sewage and grow a feedstock for biofuel all at the same time.

3) Algae grows faster than corn:

Algae is harvested multiple times a year, therefore, it has the potential to produce 1,200 gallons of biofuel per acre per year. One acre of corn can be processed into approximately 328 gallons of biofuel.

4) Algae-based biofuel is denser:

Algae based biofuel has a high energy density per acre than any other feedstock for biofuel.  Because of this high energy density, a higher amount of algae based biofuel will be able to be used in motor vehicles than corn-based biofuel.

The benefits of algae-based biofuel far outweigh the benefits of corn-based biofuel. With algae, food and water will not be an issue, it is cleaner than corn-based biofuel, it grows faster and it will be more useful in vehicles.

© 2010, Julia Verdi. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Julia Verdi (3 Articles)

I have a Masters in Natural Resource Law from University of Denver Law with two specializations, one in Environmental Law & Policy, and the second in Sustainable Development & Renewable Energy. I am especially interested in energy and environmental public policy.

  • Peter Sharma III

    Algae is, was, and ever will be far more efficient and reasonable a fuel source than corn ever was or could be. Corn is a boondoggle as a food source and a fuel. The only reason corn is so prevalent is because ADM says so. Corn is a waste of land, fuel, and water and thanks to DuPont and ADM it is not even a healthy foodstuff, rather it is indigestible poison.

  • Robert

    Energy density doesn’t really mean much if it’s difficult to harvest. People have been fermenting corn into ethanol for years and that process isn’t quite as well defined for harvesting energy from algae. Also this article doesn’t address other alternative feedstocks such as Jatropha that can grow in arid climates.

  • Paul


    • cofactor

      Paul, both is possible – extract oil and get biodiesel or grow algae with high starch content and ferment them to alcohol.

  • cofactor

    Concering water issues – if using open pond systems you will face a high evaporation rate. For that you do have to replace the losses by using fresh water even when working with brackish or salty water to avoid accumulation of salt/nutrients. But none the less – with some R&D there can be an economically & economically feasible solution for using algae as a fuel…

  • Tim Herzog

    Corn also requires CO2 to grow, correct? All plants do; that’s what photosynthesis is. Unless what you are referring to is the proposal by some to locate closed loop biofuel production next to fossil fuel electric generation plants, so they can soak up the relatively pure CO2 stream.

  • George Kuru

    The main limitation I feel with Algae as a biofuels is the ability to create scale of production. While corn may have short-comings and it certainly has its detractors, it certainly can be produced in huge quantities. Algae cannot be produced in similar quantities because the infrastructure to do so does not exist and is prohibitively expensive to develop. Consider for example the logistics and cost of developing a million acres of algal ponds.

    Possibly the most cost effective and sustainable source of bio-fuels will be from pyrolysis of wood fiber from purpose grown forests.

    • AC

      Algae can use the same distribution infrastructure as the petrochemicals we currently use, and the cost of bulldozing and lining ponds in suitable sites is negligible when compared to oil production and/or corn production. Also, the algae can be fed with animal wastes or fertilizer runoff. It is suitable for both large and small scale production, and the chemical processing is far less complex than that needed for gasoline. And replenishing the water content of the ponds can be done with waste water – water which will come out of the algae ponds cleaner than it went in. There is significant opportunity to solve multiple problems with the one solution of algae for fuel.

      Tree farms are not a significant part of the solution – particularly in the vast majority of the world where tree farms will not grow. Otherwise useless land can be used for algae production – there is no need to use forestry lands for primary energy production.

  • Bryan

    Algae will never work because ADM and other agrimegacorporations have too much money to buy politicians and hire shills who post on your blog about how algae will never work.

  • Chad

    “Algae based biofuel has a high energy density per acre than any other feedstock for biofuel. Because of this high energy density, a higher amount of algae based biofuel will be able to be used in motor vehicles than corn-based biofuel.”

    “Energy density per acre” is not the same as “Energy density”.