Algae Could Replace 17% Of U.S. Oil Imports

If used to make fuel, the slimy green stuff could make a huge dent in the amount of oil we import. But (naturally), there’s a massive catch.


Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 17% –the percent of U.S. oil imports that could be replaced by algae-based fuel.

We’ve already revealed how you’re going to be ingesting gallons of algae every day, once it’s used to spice up protein supplements, medication, and even skin moisturizer. But the slimy green stuff has powers that extend far beyond making your skin less wrinkly to performing useful functions. In fact, if used to make fuel, it has the potential to replace 17% of all U.S oil imports, with the added bonus for bored headline writers of literally going green.

It’s not as if there is a shortage of startups attempting to make biofuel out of algae. But many of them have run into a problem: growing algae requires a lot of water, and that drastically limits production capabilities, because using a lot of water to save oil is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But water problems aside, a report from the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory calculates that 21 billion gallons of algal oil (that’s equivalent to 17% of our current dead-dinosaur oil imports) could be produced on a land area the size of South Carolina (spread across the country, of course, unless South Carolina wants to volunteer).

The water required would be enormous–25% of the total we already use for irrigation. But that isn’t much different than the water requirements for other, less land-efficient biofuel sources. Corn-based ethanol requires a similar amount of water (when water use per mile driven is taken into account), but algae can produce 80 times more oil per hectare than corn.

But no matter the efficiency, it’s still too much water to make any real dent in oil imports, at least if growers rely entirely on freshwater ponds. DOE researchers are currently investigating the potential to grow algae in salt water and waste water. There’s no word on how much it would cost to scale up to 21 billion gallons of algal oil from our current levels of basically nothing, but we imagine it would be cheaper than continuing to import oil and then all dying during bloody resource wars.


[Photo from Flickr user Nat Tarbox]

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Read More: In the Future, Everything Will Be Made of Algae

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.