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The future of fuel

Friday, March 5, 2010

The future of our nation's fuel supply just might come in a tiny package. Microscopic, in fact.

Algae -- the green pond scum which has frustrated gardeners for generations -- are being considered by many as a promising fuel source to meet our country's energy needs.

The single-celled plants have the potential to be a tremendous resource. Algae ingest carbon dioxide and release oxygen in the photosynthesis process. Algae are laden with oils which can be used to produce biodiesel, starches which can be transformed into ethanol, and protein which could be used for cattle feed.

Algae grow very quickly and about 50 percent of their weight is lipid oil. In fact, algae production rates can be more than five times those of soil-based crops. The tiny organisms can be grown in many types of marine environments with minimal ecological impact. NASA has even developed a system which grows algae in municipal wastewater to produce biofuels while at the same time releasing clean water.

Algae's biofuel yield could range from 1,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre each year. Fuel from algae could include ethanol, biodiesel, bio-jet fuel, and even bio-crude which could be refined and blended at existing refineries. The Department of Energy has stated algae-based biofuels could theoretically meet transportation fuel demands for the entire United States.

Technology is advancing rapidly. There are more than 50,000 species of algae, and thousands of strains are being tested to find the ideal strain to sustain an efficient, reliable production of fuel.

Even with the correct strain of algae, challenges remain such as engineering a system which makes efficient use of available sunlight and other resources, harvesting the oil, and maintaining facilities. These and other hurdles will need to be addressed before this potential energy source could be considered a cost effective alternative to foreign sources of oil.

As a member of the House Algae Energy Caucus, I understand a considerable dedication to research and development will be necessary before algae-based fuels can be economically produced on a national level.

As you know, I am a strong supporter of an all encompassing energy policy --a policy which includes all sources of American energy as well as the research and development of alternative fuels. This is why I authored an amendment as part of the 2007 Energy Security and Independence Act supporting algae-based fuels as an area of research and development for the production of energy.

The amendment I authored in 2007 was ultimately signed into law, and required the Secretary of Energy to submit to the Committee on Science and Technology a report on the progress of the research and development being conducted on the use of algae as a feedstock for the production of biofuels.

Recently, the House Science and Technology Committee, of which I am a member, held a hearing with Energy Secretary Steven Chu in which I had the opportunity to request an update from Secretary Chu on the research and development progress of algae. My hope is this report identifies continuing research and development challenges and any regulatory or other barriers which hinder the use of this resource, as well as recommendations on how to encourage and further its development as a viable transportation fuel.

They say the best things come in small packages. Development of algae-based biofuels will create jobs, increase energy security, and provide a renewable source of fuel which certainly proves this point.

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U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith
Washington Report