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Algae to Biofuels

Algae to Biofuel

This paper will explore the possibility of using algae to create a biofuel with the potential of replacing petroleum fossil fuel at the gas pumps. I plan to illustrate how an algae-based solution could eradicate our dependence on oil-producing countries and significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.  In addition, due to the innate self-perpetuation of algae in a variety of environments, this technology could easily be shared and used throughout the world.  

There is an information technology revolution happening. It began in the second half of the 20th century, with the introduction of important milestones - such as transistors, microchips, computers, hardware, and software. This has led to a dramatic change in global communication. Enabling access to information in all forms - text, graphics, audio, video. The dramatic reduction in the cost of this technology has allowed individuals throughout the globe to process, store and transmit information. But most importantly learn from each other.

Advancements in genetic engineering have been incited by the prospect of improving human lives. To recombine genes to an advantageous outcome is possible and exciting. Science propels humanity forward, and the potential to work toward curing diseases or feeding the hungry is a temptation that is hard to ignore.

CRISPR Cas9 technology is part of this genetic engineering revolution. It allows refinement of specific aspects of the genome. CRISPR is an acronym - Clustered, Regularly, Interspaced, Short, Palindromic, Repeats. Cas9 is a protein that can use an RNA guide to make highly specific cuts in a DNA helix. Cas9 is sent to a targeted area with a specific aim. In algae’s case, it would be to increase oil production and growth.

Selective breeding is a practice that has been around since the beginnings of agriculture. CRISPR-Cas9 scientific technologies have helped achieve sought after results in a faster more efficient manner. Editing genes with speed, accuracy, and precision, it allows the refinement of specific aspects of the genome. This is gene editing, not cross-breeding. CRISPR-Cas9 does not make a hybrid out of two separate species. It makes it possible to edit the DNA chain directly.

Algae combined with CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology is a suitable place to start. Algae has unique genetics, it offers a remarkable potential for creating genetically-informed biofuels. It is more distinct genetically than most plants in the world and is easy to alter because the genetics of many strains have already been mapped. It is also thus good genetic materials to experiment with compared with animals or in vitro babies. Algae may be an innocuous place to start making controlled changes.

Benefits of Using Algae for Fuel

Alga is simple to grow, and it flourishes just about anywhere. It thrives in a much greater range of environmental conditions than other plants. Whether it's in fresh, salt, or brackish water, it just needs plenty of sunshine and carbon dioxide. It uses sunlight very efficiently; essentially every cell in the alga actively produce biomass. Algae is stemless, rootless, leafless, and generally a monocellular plant that gets its energy from photosynthesis. Algae is crucial for making the oxygen we breathe. If it hadn't evolved to produce oxygen, humans would not have existed. A large part of the fossil fuels we are mining today is made from decomposed algae. It has evolved over millions of years and has been beneficial to humans and mammals in many ways. Now its value could be appreciated even more.

If algae production and refinement continue to develop it will negate our dependence on fossil fuels. In the future, algae raceways could replace oil fields. The algae’s oil can be handled in the same refineries that are refining current petroleum fossil fuels. The end product can be used in contemporary combustion engines with no special modifications. The fuel can be transported easily, and stored in the same way we store our petroleum fossil fuels now. Though electric vehicles are becoming more common, vehicles that run on liquid fuel are far in the majority.  Not having to create new infrastructure decreases hurdles to make a viable venture.

There is also an additional bonus. After the oil is extracted what's left is a dried alga. This alga can be processed for our consumption. Food that contains vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids that are beneficial in multiple ways but are otherwise difficult to find in the food chain. The dried alga could also replace a large amount of animal feed. Every other biofuel grown, besides algae, creates just the biofuel. From algae, every gallon of fuel produces ten pounds of food.

Algae-to-biofuel is a solution that has a positive trickle-down effect. Algae has a unique ability to grow fast. It produces forty times more yield per acre than terrestrial crops. A thousand acres of algae will replace forty thousand acres of agricultural crops. Reducing terrestrial farming will stop a significant amount of water pollution as it is one of the main causes. This will effectively create another market for affordable, sustainable, and scalable sources of animal feed.

Biofuels stand apart from other fuels, not because they come from living matter, other fuels do too, but because they are made now, not over millions of years. Other plant-based ethanols take their time to get a worthwhile yield, but algae have a unique ability to grow fast. It can produce forty times more yield per acre than terrestrial crops. It has no requirement for fertilizer, uses land that is not suitable for any other crop, produces food for animals, and cleans the water.

A downside to fossil fuels is proximity. The distance from their place of production relative to their efficiency. The transportation from where they were created in the earth to the pumps is a process that has been developed and streamlined. Algae solves this problem because it is prolific throughout the world. Also, if the farm growing algae into biofuels is located near a CO₂ producing area there will be an added benefit of cleaning that air. CO₂ is algae’s food. Released again from our mufflers, it will offset our carbon footprint. Effectively using the CO₂ emissions twice before they are sent up.

The advantages of algae-to-biofuel are spurring researchers to use phototrophic algae to produce biodiesel. Algae is the most sustainable known potential source of biofuel. It has been suggested that a new energy sector based on algal biofuels could guarantee transport fuel and food security far into the future.

How CRISPR-Cas9 Could Help

The motivations for change, a revolution, are both knowledge and information. This concept coupled with genetic engineering could be a reality much faster. CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene-editing tool that could eradicate disease, but its potential is so much more. Allowing unprecedented edits, engineering, and refinement of specific aspects of the genome makes it a helpful tool because of its specificity and general applicability.

Algae that have been successful in the past have been winnowed to the strains that have the highest lipid conversion rate. The return is high but it’s not yet high enough to tip the scales towards a profitable endeavor. The final product available today has ended up being too costly to be a contender in the fuel industry.

Breeding livestock or growing crops have benefited from the longevity of the industry. In order to commercialize farm animals and crops, experience and research were implemented over time. A limitation to developing algae farming will be to cultivate at a large scale. No one has ever taken a microorganism and grown it at such huge proportions. The steps must be further discovered before they can be implemented.

A few enterprises are taking steps to create scalable operations. A new enterprise requires hundreds of innovations throughout the entire process. These will succeed when biofuel can be sold for a comparable price compared with the price we pay at the pump right now. If achieved this will create a meaningful dent in the fossil fuel petroleum products that are being consumed today.

Genetic engineering will play a prominent role in identifying the appropriate algae species for commercial use. We’ll need to further identify properties to exploit algae at a large scale. Algae already grows fast and can double every four to five hours. The amount of biomass can be eight to sixteen times as much by the end of a day.

Working with CRISPR-Cas9, scientists have already been able to double the lipid output compared with wild algae. Not only has fat production increased, but scientists were able to do this and not hamper the growth rate.

A best candidate will be the strain that has the easiest time breaking down cellulose, have the fastest production cycles, and the most value of oil when processed. If scientists can engineer an alga to produce more lipids while sustaining or surpassing current growth, that specific strain will get the go-ahead to be used for the next step - production. This is still in the laboratory, but it is promising research that can lead to eventual commercialization.

A Business Viewpoint

Despite its advantages, it is unlikely that algae will become competitive in the fuel marketplace. It will only work if the economies of scale tip the production costs to a competitive direction.  It is close to two to three dollars a gallon, but the quantity produced isn’t enough to compete with regular petrol gas companies. A revolutionary approach to agriculture will need to be implemented to pioneer renewable products for global markets providing the potential to improve large-scale, sustainable production of critical global needs - from animal feed and food to energy.

Growing algae requires energy and money to produce the yields needed to make it worthwhile. At this stage, it doesn’t make for a sound business investment. Scaling up leads to emergent problems, problems that are difficult to anticipate. Despite this, research from government and the private sector continue to research and make advancements.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy have laboratories that have made innovations in developing crude from algae. The government organization also awards funding into this research to for-profit companies. Stating strategic partnerships will help the nation become less dependent on foreign oil.

Since 2009, ExxonMobil has aligned with the research company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., together they have been investigating the biofuels-from-algae possibility. Stating that improvements in technology and scientific study are still necessary, they still endeavor to make these green fuels available to the consumer.

Do-it-Yourself Revolution

Another possibility for this to take off - do it ourselves. Organizations that facilitate the sharing of information will spread the information. If you want to learn about CRISPR in a hands-on way there are DIY bacterial genome engineering CRISPR kits for sale on Amazon. The creator of the kit, Josiah Zayner believes science should be democratized. Every person interested could work together to solve the issues that, they alone, never thought they could influence. It’s a step towards giving anyone the ability to create their own fuel and influence future operations globally.

The goal is to get the use of algae biofuels ingrained into our everyday lives. We want the slight changes to add up to a significant permeating change. Anyone, around the world, of any persuasion, won’t give it a thought when they go to the pump. A quick spread of the technology could be the impetus of this. Creating a radical revolution with the use of internet access. Diverse and unbounded networks across the world will develop their own ways of making biofuel.

An impetus for change enabled by the internet. In the past change was localized to the area where it started and spread from there. The nexus for this change will have diverse and unbounded starting points because it will be accessible to everyone. It will spread in a conventional manner, outward, but with multiple starting points will increase the speed until their antipodal meet.

This speculation could be possible because of the information technology revolution. There is general global access to devices that connect us to the internet. This allows users to share knowledge and discoveries. Commercial algae growers could benefit by communicating common problems and their solutions. Synergizing networks becomes generative. Sharing mistakes and successes on the internet will help develop a horizontal learning experience. Other companies can only strengthen since innovations will help all. Working as a global team, anyone can work on it - where they are. Algae is ubiquitous throughout the world, with one of the more than 30,000 species, a DIY gene editing kit, and some ingenuity, your local algae could be the breakthrough.

If we continue to increase our consumption of petroleum reserves they will be depleted in a consequential manner, causing the price of fossil fuel to increase. Developing a high yield, industrial-scale growth system could make algae one of the world’s most valuable and sustainable fuel sources.

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