Algae Biodiesel: A Shift to Green Oil?

Energy is one of the few commodities that can single-handedly cause economies to crumble, instigate resource wars, and cripple the fragile balance of the world’s ecosystem all at once. The symbiotic relationship between consumers and current energy resources can only be sustained as a function of mutual benefit. When the consumer depletes the available resources without regards for sustainability, diminution of resources gradually intensifies to what is now known as the energy crisis. For years, sustainability experts and energy engineers have been warning the general public of the “energy crisis,” but only recently have heads started to turn. Now, the topic of energy is at the forefront of the national agenda and a global point of contention and reform.

For simplicity, it is helpful to put the crisis in a more tangible checklist of causes and indicators. Fossil fuels lead to alarming economic, social, and environmental problems. Whether one supports the science behind global warming or not, the implications of limited fossil fuel resources for our environment are undeniable. In 2007 The Science Daily pointed out that the last 11 years were 11 of the 13 hottest years in recorded history worldwide1. NASA noted earlier this year that the first half of 2010 has been the warmest in the 131 years that NASA has been taking such statistics2. Food production has markedly declined in the southern hemisphere, the polar ice caps are melting, the sea levels are rising, high-intensity storms frequencies have increased, and the coral reefs are being bleached. But beyond the controversy of global warming, lies the visible problem of pollution and physical erosion of the environment. For example, the burning of coal, which produces environmentally toxic acid rain, and the transportation of oil risks spills threaten human health and the environment.

Failing to take collective action against the widespread use of fossil fuels has hurts America’s soft power to influence global changes. Such lack of development of soft power can be traced to the economic and geopolitical basis of the energy crisis. As of 2010, the United States still depend on foreign countries for about 40% of its fossil fuels3. This oil dependence has made the U. S. vulnerable to supply cut-offs at any time – similar to the oil embargo of 1973. Reliance on foreign oil also widens the growing U.S. trade deficit, which accounts for the low financial value of exports versus imports that threatens the U.S. economic infrastructure. These two deterrents in a world of competition are resulting in a dramatic shift of wealth from Western countries to the developing world.  Perhaps, Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated most accurately: “Oil fuels military power, national treasuries, and international politics. It has been transformed into a determinant of well-being, of national security, and of international power for those who possess this vital resource, and the converse for those who do not” 4. To put the extent of the issue in perspective, the United States consumes nearly a million dollars of energy for every minute of the 525,600 minutes in a common year, $200,000 of which is spent on foreign oil imports5.

Exploring the possible engineering solutions for an alternative to fossil fuels is an exhaustive subject that requires thorough analysis and research. Eventually, each alternative energy source is labeled by its debilitating downfall: inefficiency, cost, environmental danger, et cetera. But, algae biodiesel, formed from the oil of the algal plant material is a very promising technology on the brink of eluding these pitfalls. The science behind the process is fairly straightforward: the algae is grown through dark photosynthesis and oil is extracted from the algae through a press, which will then be converted into a usable biofuel through a chemical process known as transesterification. However, the reality of proliferating and fine-tuning such a process is understandably more complex. At face value, the benefits of using algae are astounding and definitely worth the trouble. Not only does algae biodiesel not further the alarming exponential increase in global pollution, it actually reduces it by absorbing and cutting CO2 emissions and nitrogen from waste water6. It efficiently produces ten times more fuel per gallon than any other biofuel and has been estimated by an assortment of different engineering companies to output at least 4,000 gallons per acre of land grown7. The efficiency can be valued even more when one appraises the fact that algae can be grown in any location or climate, unlike other forms of renewable energy like solar, wind, and geothermal, which depend on specific regional resources.  Clearly, both the U.S. economy as well as individual citizens can benefit from the development of algae biofuel.

So why is the U.S., the second-leading consumer of energy in the world, not a leading manufacturer of algae biofuel? Due to its competitiveness as an alternative to oil, federal algae research funding was stopped for an extended period of time. Mr. Curwin, writer for CNBC notes, “The industry…needs to get Washington on its side. Currently, algael biofuels aren’t eligible for tax breaks and subsidies going to other biofuels” 8. Therefore, businesses perceive that investing in algae biodiesel is risky because there are no incentives to supplement research and development. Without incentives, algae biodiesel has not been proven on a mass production scale and suffers from high production costs. However, as recently as February of this year, there have been impressive strides to overcome the obstacles that face the implementation of algae biodiesel. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon and is now on track to begin large-scale refining of the fuel for a cost of less than $3 a gallon9. Currently, the top eight firms in the U.S. that are working with algae have attracted over $350 million in capital over the past three years, and all of them have aggressive commercialization dates for their technologies within the next three years8. The strides in finalizing algae biofuel so far have been promising, but relatively gradual. Thus, maximization of algae fuel’s potential depends on incentives from the federal government and ultimately  on support from its constituents.


1 World Meteorological Organization. “Top 11 Warmest Years On Record Have All Been In Last 13 Years.” ScienceDaily, 13 December 2007. Web. <>.

2 Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, and Ken Lo. “GISS Surface Temperature Analysis.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 30 Sept 2010. Web. <>.

3 U.S. Energy Information Administration. “How Dependent Are We On Foreign Oil?” Annual Energy Outlook, December 2009. Web. <>.

4Ebel, Robert E. “Economic and Security Implications of Recent Developments in World Oil Market.” Committee on Global Affairs. Washington, D.C. 24 Mar 2000.

5 “Safe, Strong, and Secure: Reducing America’s Oil Dependence.” National Resources Defenses Council, May 2007. Web. <>.

6 Starke, Linda, ed. “State of the World: Our Urban Future.” The World Watch Institute. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

7 “Algae: The Ultimate Biofuel?”, 2 Apr 2010. Web.


8 Curwin, Trevor. “Algae Could Grow into a Biofuels Leader.” CNBC, 18 Apr 2010. Web. <>.

9 Goldenburg, Suzanne. “Algae to Solve the Pentagon’s Jet Fuel Problem.”, 13 Feb 2010. Web. <>.

Written by Sameh Saleh of Georgetown University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter. Join us on Facebook