As giant agribusiness lobbies continue to hype corn ethanol and soy-based biodiesel, the modest algae industry has been quietly piecing together a consortium of some of the biggest industrial players on the block, not the least of which is Boeing.  Last month Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, announced that it will phase in a 30% blend of biofuels in the next 3-5 years, and it recently joined the Algal Biomass Organization, a new lobby in Washington which will compete with corn and soy for much-needed R & D dollars.

This is good news for the climate.  Air travel is responsible for approximately 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and in addition to CO2 petroleum-based jet fuel destroys "good ozone" (yes, like cholesterol there is good ozone and bad ozone) and it creates more "bad ozone," dramatically increasing its global warming effect.  Biofuels, at least theoretically, solve this problem.  All biofuels are considered carbon-neutral. As the plants grow they soak up CO2, and when burned, that CO2 is re-released into the atmosphere.  But at least additional CO2 is not being added to the system, as happens when petroleum is combusted.

Some have criticized the theory, saying that it all depends on the crops.  A report last year by the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review found that some biofuel crops have a net global warming effect because of the release of additional nitrous oxides, a class of greenhouse gases 300 times more impactful that CO2 in terms of global warming.  One example are rapeseed crops used to produce biodiesel in Europe. The study found that European farmers could reduce their carbon footprint by 50% if they just used regular diesel and planted trees.

Enter algae.  Algae is a single-celled photosynthetic organism that use the sun's energy to convert CO2 and water into carbohydrates, which can then be processed into hydrocarbon fuel.  Algal biofuel (fuel derived from algae) promises a truly carbon neutral fuel with less than half of the ozone depleting side-effects of regular jet fuel.  

And unlike products like corn ethanol which require the use of premium arable land (fertile land that would otherwise be used for food crops) algae can be grown just about anywhere using non-arable land.  More importantly, according to the Carbon Trust, algal fuels produce 6-10 times more energy per acre than conventional crop-based biofuels (corn, soy, rapeseed).

Algae can also be grown in conjunction with existing gas and coal power plants.  Certain strains of algae (over 12 super-strains have been identified) have a voracious appetite for CO2, a gas found in abundance at gas and coal plants.  One recent test by the Arizona Public Services Company in conjunction with GreenFuel technologies, fed waste CO2 from the power plant directly to the algae beds.  The results were impressive -- energy levels per square foot were 37 times higher than corn and 140 times higher than soy!

Images: Boeing & HR Biopetroleum

Boeing backs algae-based jet fuels
Boeing's move signals that algae technology could lead the biofuel industry.