Biofuels are often brought up when discussing the use of renewable energies to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions. However, a very controversial aspect of biofuels is that the base materials for their production are often staple crops and woody plants. Growing staple crops for biofuels takes up existing arable land, and food prices may also experience sharp increases from time to time as biofuel producers compete with the general populace for the same agricultural commodities. One way to address this particular problem is to develop biomass production that does not require arable land. For instance, marine macro-algae, or the ubiquitous seaweeds, can be transformed into fuels that replace diesel and gasoline. Since seaweeds can be cultivated in seawater or even in waste water, they are now considered a promising biomass candidate.
Silvergrass, switchgrass, hemp, corn, sugarcanes, palm trees, and other woody plants are among the biomass materials that are often labeled as “renewable” and “carbon-neutral” sources of energy. Although these energy crops can be grown and harvested indefinitely, their market growth encourages deforestation and monoculture farming in less developed regions. Indeed, the pursuit to expand the supply of biofuels has led to increasing risk of famine, weakening food security, and more incidences of environmental degradation worldwide. Not only these negative consequences can become irreversible, but they directly work against the goal of carbon neutrality as well.
The European Commission, which is the executive branch of the European Union, has been implementing measures to curb the use of staple crops for biofuel production since 2013. The organization also calls for the switch to seaweeds and organic wastes as the base materials for biofuel production. The commission aims to have the more advanced biomass technologies account for at least 2.5% of Europe’s transport energy mix by 2020. The research team working at MacroFuels, which is an algae fuel consortium (or project) backed by the European Commission, has stated that achieving the 2.5% biomass target with only algae fuels would require an area of around 5,000 square kilometers to grow seaweeds. The team has also estimated that 15,000 new jobs could be created to maintain seaweed cultivation over an area of that size.
Moreover, the European Commission has begun restricting the use of biofuels based on palm oil starting in 2019. This March, palm oil was removed from the list of renewable transport fuels recognized by the European Union. The policy objective is to gradually phase out the use of palm oil in the region’s transportation sector between 2023 and 2030.
Seaweeds could be a superior kind of biomass material compared with staple crops and woody plants because they can grow in places unsuitable for agricultural activities. Seaweeds are not planted on arable land and does not need to be irrigated with fresh water. Besides being able to survive and thrive in salt water, seaweeds can improve the health of the marine ecosystem by absorbing excess nutrients and pollutants that have been washed into the ocean. According to the US Department of Energy, to have algae fuels replace all petroleum fuels used in the US would require an area of 39,000 square kilometers to grow seaweeds. In comparison, the total area of land in the US that is used to grow corn in 2000 was seven times larger in size.
Powering cars with algae fuels is proven to be feasible as researchers at MacroFuels have already been testing their fuel in car engines. The results of their trials reveal that cars using their fuel can reach a top speed of 80 kilometers per hour. The MacroFuels project has also opened up the possibilities of algae fuels used in aircrafts and other types of transportation vehicles.
The development of technologies for converting seaweeds into biofuel still face some daunting challenges. First, the costs of biofuel conversion processes for seaweeds remain very high, up to 10 to 1,000 times greater than the costs of processes for other biomass materials. Moreover, there is now the risk of genetically modified seaweeds being introduced into the wider marine environment. To extract more energy content out of seaweeds, developers of algae fuels have resorted to genetic engineering and monoculture farming. Thus, the cultivation of these artificial strains of algae requires careful management. Activities of seaweed farms should not affect other marine organisms and vice versa.
(News Source: TechNews. Photo credit: Pixabay.)