How Algae Grow >
Algae Cultivation >
Production Systems >
History as Fuel >
History as Fuel
The idea of using algae as a source of food, feed and energy goes back more than half a century. Production of methane gas from algae was proposed in the early 1950s, and received a big impetus during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when projects were initiated to produce gaseous fuels (hydrogen and methane). From 1980 to 1996 the US Department of Energy supported the Aquatic Species Program (ASP), a relatively small effort (about $25 million over almost 20 years) with the specific goal of producing oil from microalgae.
The ASP researchers worked primarily on growing algae in open ponds, making significant contributions to our understanding of growing algae for fuel. Thousands of different species were isolated and tested, the impacts of different nutrient and CO2 concentrations were documented, the engineering challenges of mass-producing algae addressed, and a solid foundation of algae-fuel research built. But in 1995, faced with financial constraints and cheap oil, the DOE made the decision to terminate the program.
In recent years, things have changed. Exploding global demand for transportation fuels, concerns about “peak oil”, increasing impacts of atmospheric CO2,the United States’ increasing importation of fuel, and the energy security risks that come with that, has fueled a rebirth in the interest of biofuels in general and algae-based biofuels in particular.
Advances in biotechnology, such as the ability to genetically engineer algae to produce more oils and convert solar energy more efficiently, have unleashed new possibilities not feasible during the ASP years.
Most of the activity in algae research and commercial production has been in the United States. With more than 100 start-ups and large corporations, along with the US Government, investing billions in this new industry, the US the leader in advancing algae-based fuels. However, now algae biofuels are also being researched around the world in both developed and developing nations in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
The US-based Algal Biomass Organization is a leading voice for the industry and a source for information on the companies involved in advancing the technology.
Industry exec Dr. Margaret McCormick reviews historical uses of algae
CLICK HERE for more photos about algae basics
Take our fun – and short – quiz to see how much you know about algae. Compare with your friends!