One of my favorite noodle menus in my campus cafeteria is what is called kishimen, a flat and wide noodle thicker than udon, served with some katsuo bushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna), some agetoufu and seaweed. Among those ingredients I don’t really like the seaweed thing, even though it’s said that seaweed is the secret why Japanese people don’t get fat 🙂 Anyway, eating what I don’t want to eat somehow make me think, how we can use this seaweed not for eating.
What first came into my mind is the fact that seaweed and its family what so called Algae constitutes roughly half of the Earth’s photosynthetic activity. There are more than 100,000 strains of algae ranging from microscopic single cellular organisms to seaweed species miles in length. There is plenty of it on Earth. The second fact about Algae is what geologists said, that most oil and natural gas was derived from prehistoric deposits of zooplankton and algae which trapped in a huge mass by layer of sediment which good enough to change those organisms into hydrocarbons.
After that, an idea about producing algae-based biofuels came into my mind. I googled some facts about algae-based biofuels and its potential. As part of the photosynthesis process algae produce oil and can generate 15 times more oil per acre than other plants used for biofuels, such as corn and switch grass. Structured plants are very inefficient converters of sunlight to biomass. Much less than 1% of the incident solar energy is released even if the entire plant is used. However, algae, which are much simpler organisms, display greater efficiency. Their faster growth rates, and the fact that their production can be essentially continuous rather than seasonal, could make relatively low efficiencies of hydrocarbon production acceptable. Above all of those advantages, Algae can grow in salt water, freshwater or even contaminated water, at sea or in ponds, and on land not suitable for food production.
It doesn’t make any sense if we are thinking only about its potential. This January, In Japan, Japan Airlines (JAL) became the first airline to conduct a demonstration flight using a sustainable biofuel primarily refined from the energy crop, camelina. And Exxon just announced a partnership with biotech company Synthetic Genomics to develop transportation fuels from algae, and build a huge photobioreactors producing algae-based biofuels.
Then why don’t we use Algae instead of corn for producing biofuels? I thought about Asian countries, especially my home country Indonesia. We have a large territory, even not all of it is fertile, we can grow algae there without destroying rainforests. Moreover, unlike subtropical countries which have small number of sunny days which suitable for algae growth, our country is tropical, so the production can be done in the entire year. However, according to the latest news, some foreign and domestic firms signed agreements totalling 12.4 billion dollars to develop biofuel projects to turn crops such as palm oil and sugar cane into biodiesel and bioethanol. That means they would encourage farmers to destroy rain forest to grow palm oil or sugar cane. I’m pretty sure that the oilseed produced would be exported to developed countries. You know, The EU has imposed an obligation upon EU member states to produce 5% of vehicle fuels from biological sources by 2010. Just like the other commodities, my country rainforests would be sacrificed for developed nations necessary.
Voting algae for the next generation biofuel!!