Algae Fuel Takes Off

While America still relies heavily on traditional sources of energy like coal and oil, the Obama administration has begun to look to algae to cut down on the eighteen million barrels of crude oil per day that the country consumes.   Still considered an experimental source of renewable energy, algae has been shown to emit less carbon than fossil fuels, and can be refined in traditional oil refineries.  Also, because algae may be grown domestically, it has the potential to make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy.  Attempting to capitalize on this potential, the Energy and Agriculture Departments have given over $100 million to private companies like Sapphire Energy to develop and research algae energy.

The military is also taking steps to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.  The Navy this past September teamed with California-based Solazyme to manufacture bioengineered algae to power its air and ship fleets.  The algae oil produced by the company has proven to reduce carbon emissions by more then 85 percent compared to regular fuel sources.  The Navy hopes that by 2020 half of its fleet will be running on a mixture of renewable fuels and nuclear energy.

Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tim Vilsack announced that in order for the Obama administration to meet its goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel every year by 2022, it may start blending algae and grass with gasoline.  “It is our belief that in order for this industry to really become rooted…that all of the benefits that we’ve talked about accrue to all parts of the county, you’re looking at using a wide variety of feedstock, depending upon the strength and area that you’re talking about.”

However, the prices of feedstock (crops or products such as algae used for bioenergy) often rise drastically as a result of government subsidies.  At a Wilson Center event in September, Randy Schnepf, a specialist in agricultural policy with the Congressional Research Service, spoke of the difficulties in scaling biofuels usage, especially given the cheap prices of natural energy sources like petroleum.  Nevertheless, Schnepf did note that although the U.S. in 2009 only, “produced eleven billion gallons of biofuels,” contributing to about five percent of the transportation fuel system, he argued that biofuels are having “a very significant policy impact in many other markets.”

Posted by: Wesley Milillo and Michael Darden

Sources: msnbc, nytimes, cbsnews, Associated Press

Photo credit: Algae courtesy of flickr user lovelydead.

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