Algae Biofuel Under Development

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Courtesy of shaferiens on Flickr.

Commercial and academic laboratories across the country are making significant investments in engineering algae to produce fuel, the New York Times reports. The goal is to develop a variety of algae – the Times calls it a superalgae – that is able to convert sunlight into lipids and oils, which can be used to produce biofuel, with greater efficiency. Labs are employing methods ranging from genetic engineering to chemically induced mutation.

Proponents of the efforts point out that algae has the potential to produce more than ten times the biofuel per acre that corn or soybeans might yield. Algae can also be cultivated on arid land or in brackish water, using neither of which competes with food production, and it is a prolific consumer of carbon dioxide.

However critics are concerned with the potential effects of a superalgae making its way outside of research facilities and competing with native varieties. Algae produces a large portion of the world's oxygen and is the basis for many aquatic biomes. And a few academics have predicted that introducing a highly efficient algae could kill less efficient native populations, cause a massive algal bloom, and deprive oceans of oxygen.

While no regulatory duties have yet been assigned to a federal organ to oversee algal engineering efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency will likely take the lead.

–Riley Blanton

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