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The Green Life: Algae into Gold? A Look at Biofuel

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August 14, 2009

Algae into Gold? A Look at Biofuel

Algalbloomijpg Algae. More than just pond scum, it's been fueling the news about alternative energy. ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, and Bill Gates have all recently announced investments in the potential biofuel.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported on a Silicon Valley-based company, LiveFuels, that aims to convert an algae problem in the Gulf of Mexico into an energy solution. Each year, a “dead zone” forms there, where pollution-fed algal blooms choke out marine life. LiveFuels proposes importing mobile, algae-eating fish farms to harvest the blooms. The company would later convert those algae-fed fish into oil.

In some ways, algae seems like a panacea. After all, it doesn’t ask for much – just a little sunlight and carbon dioxide, and we’ve got plenty of both to spare. Oil companies like it because they find it compatible with existing transportation infrastructure.

But like most biofuels, algae requires a nuanced look. For instance, the fact that many biofuels, like algae, grow quickly and easily makes them unwieldy, critics say. They could easily grow out of control and overtake ecosystems. Think kudzu.

In addition, the Sierra Club questions using algae-eating fish to address the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone because it ignores the root of the problem, which is the fact that industrial agriculture dumps fertilizers into the Mississippi upstream.

Sorting through the good and bad of emerging biofuels can be tricky. A good start is this handy Biofuel Comparison Chart from Treehugger.com

--Jamie Hansen

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