Schoolkids turn algae into fuel Photo:
Tony O'Kane | Jun, 04 2008 | 0 Comments

While automakers, oil companies and scientists squabble over what will become the fuel of the future, several alternatives have popped up as stopgap solutions to help ease the demand for oil. Of these, ethanol and biodiesel have emerged as the most popular, with widespread use of both spreading throughout Europe, the USA and much Latin America. However, there have been a number of "guerrilla" fuels that are being refined by enterprising motorists in their own back yards - or in this case, classroom.

David Levine, a teacher at Chicago's Al Raby School for Community and Environment began the algae-into-fuel project as a long term project for his class, which is largely made up of children from lower-income African-American families. The end goal was to produce enough fuel to power a vehicle from the school to the Sears Tower in the centre of Chicago and back again - which worked out to be roughly one gallon (3.8 Litres) - and after almost a full school year of laborious algae cultivation it was ready. After being poured into a diesel-engined Volkswagen van, the classroom grown algae fuel managed to last the distance and the exercise was a triumph for the third-generation biofuel and proved the power of a dedicated teacher and motivated students.

but is algal fuel a viable replacement for regular diesel or petroleum? It's an alternative, I'll give it that, but like most biofuels it requires the large-scale cultivation of a single type of vegetation in order to produce a substantial amount of the fuel. According to current estimates, an area 1.3 times the size of Belgium would be needed to produce enough algae-derived fuel to eliminate demand for petroluem in the US, but that's still less than 1/7th the total area used up in corn farming in that country alone.

There are other benefits to algal biofuels besides it's compatibility with petroleum-powered motors, such as its ability to soak up large amounts of carbon dioxide. Unlike corn-derived ethanol, algal production doesn't interfere with fresh water quality and it doesn't interrupt food supply either - the widespread adoption of E85 ethanol blends in the US caused a massive spike in the price of corn in Mexico, instigating a mini-famine among Mexico's poor who rely heavily on corn to survive. Unfortunately, burning algae fuel still creates just as many pollutants as burning regular diesel or petrol. So, it's not a long-term solution to the world's ever-increasing thirst for fuel but it could still prove to be of use as global oil supplies dry up and an interim solution is required.

You can read more on David Levine's class project here, and more on algal fuels in general here

[Source, photo: Jalopnik]

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