Earth Notes - Algae & Biofuel

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Algae & Biofuel

The slogan going green is everywhere these days. In the energy production business, it may be taking on a new meaning. Some power companies are looking at green algae to clean up emissions and produce biofuel at the same time.

Algae are among the Earth's simplest and most plentiful plants. Arizona Public Service has been working with a Massachusetts firm, GreenFuel Technologies, on a process that grows algae by feeding them the carbon dioxide produced by power-plant emissions. Once the algae are harvested, their oils and starches can be turned into ethanol and biodiesel.

The process has worked in tests conducted at an APS power plant near Phoenix. Now APS and GreenFuel are trying it at the Four Corners power plant near Farmington, New Mexico. Engineers have managed to produce certified biodiesel there, though not yet at a commercial scale.

As with all energy projects, cost is key. This new method of producing fuel is likely to work at a large scale only if the biofuel can match the present price of conventional diesel. Still, algae farms wouldn't take up nearly as much land as do corn and soybeans, the current leading biofuel crops. And they help to clean up power-plant emissions. But water is needed in the production process, which may be a problem in the arid Southwest.

Fossil-fuel emissions, and climate change, are difficult issues. But it just may be that nature's very simple power plants will help people solve a very complicated problem.

-Rose Hauk