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Biotech Power Science

Mutant Algae to Fuel Cars of Tomorrow? 158

Hugh Pickens writes "Algae has long been known as a promising source of biodiesel. It's worth noting, though, that algae also produces a small amount of hydrogen during photosynthesis. The MIT Technology Review reports that researchers have created a mutant algae that makes better use of sunlight to increase the amount of hydrogen that the algae produce. Anastasios Melis and his team at the University of California have manipulated the genes that control the amount of chlorophyll in the algae's chloroplasts. Although the process is still at least five years from being used for hydrogen generation, Melis estimates that if 50% of the algae's photosynthesis could be directed toward hydrogen production, an acre could produce 40 kilograms of hydrogen per day. At the price of $2.80 a kilogram, hydrogen could compete with gasoline, since a kilogram of hydrogen is equivalent in energy to a gallon of gasoline."
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Mutant Algae to Fuel Cars of Tomorrow?

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  • Feasible (Score:5, Informative)

    by chuckymonkey ( 1059244 ) <.charles.d.burton. .at. .gmail.com.> on Saturday September 29, 2007 @05:35AM (#20792253) Journal
    If they can make this work I think it's great. The current U.S. consumption of oil is about 5.2 Million bb/d [doe.gov], and there is about 950 Million acres of farmland as of 2002 [usda.gov]. One barrel of crude equals about 42 gallons of gasoline according to this [anl.gov]. So we can safely say that one acre is about a barrel of crude according TFA. I think that is very doable provided that it actually works. Much better solution than ethanol if you ask me, which has proven time and again that if we want to go with corn ethanol that there isn't enough farmland in the U.S. Now granted that 40kg is optimal so if we allow say 8 million acres for this I think we may even have a surplus of energy. That is the kind of idea I like to see.
  • Re:Feasible (Score:3, Informative)

    by thanatos_x ( 1086171 ) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @06:22AM (#20792361)
    The end result is the carbon is removed from the air. It's exactly like trees and other plants, albeit as a likely single celled organism the resulting structure it's stored in isn't usually as useful.

    Also I may be wrong, but I believe you'd still run into oxygen depletion in the ocean, though not directly from the algae. An algal bloom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algal_bloom [wikipedia.org] increases the amount of bacteria present to 'eat' the algae. These bacteria use the oxygen dissolved in the water, and eventually most animals can't survive in it.

    As to the possible problem of breeding an algae which takes over things - this species seems to me like it'd be less likely to survive in the wild, and even if equally as likely, it is probable that in order to cultivate the algae in sufficient quantities, it would have to be fertilized, limiting it's excessive spread to the areas fertilized/naturally containing a large abundance of such nutrients.

    It likely would be difficult to harvest the byproduct of multiple millions of acres of algae on the ocean, but I don't see it being significantly easier farming it. Perhaps the easiest solution would be to flood an area near the ocean (or a continental shelf), but these tend to be areas valued by man and inhabited by diverse wildlife where man hasn't chased it away. Regardless you'd need large quantities of water and of land, and they tend to be somewhat exclusive of each other. The great plains aquifers are estimated to run dry as early as 2050, and these are the prime reason why farming the great plains is as productive as it is. I don't know, perhaps I'm missing an obvious solution?
  • Re:Feasible (Score:4, Informative)

    by DDLKermit007 ( 911046 ) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @06:27AM (#20792371)
    Don't count on this getting too far. Corn producers have their heels into politicians pretty good on the matter, and Hydrogen has this problem of being very hard to contain with a problem of brittling most metals used to contain it outside of titanium.
  • Re:Feasible (Score:3, Informative)

    by Xonstantine ( 947614 ) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @12:59PM (#20794293)
    Uh, we functionally already have yeast that eat waste cellulose and excrete ethanol. The problem is, the cellulose has to be emersed in water, ethanol is a waste product that eventually poisons the yeast at a fairly low concentration, and you have to distill the solution to extract the alcohol...and distillation is energy intensive.
  • by grimJester ( 890090 ) on Saturday September 29, 2007 @01:42PM (#20794583)
    The US has around 940 million acres of farmland (source [usda.gov]). A single percent of this would be enough to fuel all the cars in the country. It's not necessarily the most efficient option but certainly doable.

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