Nothing is more fun than a science-based field trip. We went on a field trip on Friday to Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus. After getting off the bus, our first stop was the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, where we met Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, a scientist who studies algae.
You might think algae would be pretty boring. After all, it is that stuff that turns your pool green or grows on the sides of your fish tank, making it hard to see the fish. It is slimy and sometimes really smelly. Who would spend their life studying something like that?
We learned algae is actually exciting stuff and may have a huge impact on our future. In fact, that green goo may soon be golden. It turns out certain kinds of algae contain a lot of natural oils in their cells. The oils can be extracted and turned into a form of biofuel (fuel that comes from recently living things).
Algae have a lot of advantages over other sources of biofuel. First of all they aren't a crop, so making them into fuel does not take food away from people (although one of the by-products of the extraction process is a protein powder that may some day be used for food, too.) The algae can be grown in wastewater from farms high in manure or other forms of water that may not be suitable for drinking. They can be grown in areas that aren't good for farming. And they produce more oil per acre than soybeans.
Of course there are costs too. The algae grow in large tanks, sort of like fish tanks. Electrical pumps are needed to circulate the water in the tanks. Dr. Sommerfeld's group is looking into a way to produce the electricity using solar panels. Extracting the oil also requires some energy, but as the techniques are modified and perfected the process will likely become more efficient.
After visiting the laboratory and seeing all the tanks full of brightly colored algae, it is not hard to imagine cars, trucks and planes running on biofuel in the near future.
For more information, see this recent article from Arizona State University's Research Magazine.
September update: Check for more recent post and link to newspaper article.