Close students of Fast Company will no doubt have learned a few things about algae fuel already. In fact, the idea of turning algae into fuel dates back a half century. But research since the oil crisis in the 1970s has not conclusively shown that the process of cultivating energy from our little seaweedy friends could be economical at scale.
On Friday, though, came an article from the leading journal Science trying to map out how and when a massive microalgae industry could be created. According to the article, written by researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the algae fuels community is divided into two camps: those who want to try to scale up immediately, and those who want to move with caution. Given that almost the surface area of Portugal would currently be needed for algae cultivation just to supply the European transport fuel needs, the authors clearly feel that this is a “look before you leap” situation. They call for a “comprehensive research portfolio” covering “the whole chain of process development in an integrated and iterative way.”
Over the course of their article, the authors offer glimpses of how the algae industry could become feasible. Genetic engineering might yield more productive algae. Better design principles in algae fuel farms (stacking reactor units, for instance, for economical use of light) could squeeze out further efficiency. And replacing centrifugation with lower-cost harvesting methods could further “improve the downstream economics.” The article shows that with some design creativity, an aggressive research program, and the mindset of a relentless accountant, some 15 years labor could finally make a reality of that decades-old dream: sprawling fields of productive green goo.