Written by R.E. Lord

Algae, one of the oldest life forms on earth, are poised to play a major role in the global search for the ideal biofuel feedstock, as researchers around the world seek new, more efficient ways to squeeze oil from "seaweed" to produce a clean and renewable biofuel. Some scientists even project that algal fuels could one day replace petroleum outright.

There are certainly good reasons for this kind of audacious hope. Some forms of algae are as much as 50 percent oil, and they can be grown in salty water or even waste water, absorbing C02 in the process. Researchers say algae can produce from 30 to 400 times more oil per acre than other popular biofuel feedstocks like palm trees and soy beans. And since algae can be grown in huge open ponds or in sealed bioreactors, and because algae can convert sunlight into chemical energy (photosynthesis) much more efficiently than other feedstocks, its wide use could take biofuel production out of the food cycle for good.

Indeed, Petrosun Inc., an Arizona-based company that operates an algae-to-biodiesel farm in Texas, estimates that algae production on approximately 2 million acres of desert (about half of one rural Arizona county) could replace all U.S. ethanol production, thus conserving millions of acres of Midwestern farmland.

“Replacing corn as a biofuel feedstock would save 40 million acres of cropland, 4 trillion gallons of water, 240 million tons of soil erosion and extensive water pollution annually,” the company said in a statement.

While governments and organizations have been researching algal fuels for decades, only in the last few years has their potential been broadcast far and wide. There is still much to discover, however, before we are all driving algal-fuel cars and screaming through the sky in a jet powered by seaweed. Recently, the head of the European Algae Biomass Association told Reuters that it would be 10 to 15 years before the current rush of experimentation yields any commercial applications.

One of the biggest determiners of the commercial viability of algal fuel is, of course, the issue of production cost. It is still considerably more expensive to produce biodiesel from algae than it is to make other biofuels, researchers say. That’s why scientists are not only concentrating their research on finding the best, most efficient algal species for fuel production and the quickest, cheapest and easiest ways of growing such species in mass quantities, but they are also looking into new ways to use the by-products from the process as a form of revenue, such as producing animal feed.

There are currently dozens of start-up companies in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere working the algal fuel angle, and the future of this ancient life form may very well be linked to the future of human life on earth.