Algae just might be the next big thing in alternative fuel, and for good reason.

We know we won’t always pull up to the gas pump and fill our vehicle’s tanks with fossil fuels—for one, they’re a finite resource, and for another, the environmental problems they cause—climate change, oil spills, air pollution—aren’t sustainable. And, the discoveries researchers are making in alternative fuels have been getting really exciting—and really green. Quoted has the scoop on the newest biofuel wunderkind: algae—it’s not just for vegan baking and health-conscious folks who can’t stomach fish oil. In fact, Hydrogen Fuel News reports that the Obama administration has been supporting algae biofuel research and development through the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Defense, with promising developments.

Algae as Fuel: How It Works

green algae
In the Department of Energy (DOE)’s words, algae is: “small aquatic organisms that convert sunlight into energy and store it in the form of oil.” Algae can be grown domestically on large man-made ponds called raceways. On these raceways, the DOE reports that a new crop of algae can be cultivated every few weeks. Researchers say algae has the potential to produce up to 60 times more oil per acre than other land-based biofuel sources (such as corn). Once algae is harvested, says the DOE, it can be quickly turned into fuel for anything that runs on gasoline or diesel—like cars, trucks, trains, and planes.

Erasing the Carbon Footprint

Not only does algae burn clean, but it needs carbon dioxide to grow—like all plants, of course—which removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, making algae “a nearly carbon-neutral fuel source.”. Even cooler (literally), the DOE says, “There may even be opportunities to build algae farms next to power plants that use fossil fuels—actually using CO2 exhaust to feed algae ponds.”

The biggest feather in algae’s proverbial biofuel cap may be the ease of conversion from raw material into usable resource. The DOE describes the conversion process as “harvesting, dewatering and concentrating algae material so it can be preprocessed and eventually refined into fuel.” These steps are far fewer in number than the processes to convert other raw materials into fuel.

How Long Until We See Algae at the Pump?

Algae biofuel is still under development. The DOE says scientists and researchers are testing various strains of algae (there exist over 100,000) in different conditions—different climates, freshwater, saltwater, and even wastewater—with the aim of developing the most efficient farming practices.

Though algae biofuel is in the future, Hydrogen Fuel News reports that biofuel refineries are increasing in number. They say a refinery in New Mexico called Sapphire Energy is already producing oil from algae—“oils that can be easily processed into diesel and other fuels through their refining partners, Phillips 66 and Tesoro.” What’s more, when the plant is complete, “it is expected to generate as much as 1 million gallons of algae-based biofuels annually.”

Algae is a nearly carbon-neutral fuel source that could power cars, trucks, and more.

How Stuff Works encourages some tempering of excitement, however. They report that while companies around the world are set to experiment with and produce algae biofuels, there hasn’t been much algae biofuel testing done with actual cars as everything is still in early stages. How Stuff Works reports evidence of just one algae biodiesel car: “In January 2008, a company used algae biodiesel to fuel a Mercedes Benz E320 diesel to cruise the streets of Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival. However, no statistics were released on the car’s gas mileage or what kind of emissions it produced.”

So, it looks like we have a while yet before we see commercial algae production, but we’re excited to see how the alternative fuel source develops.

What do you think? Can you see yourself fueling up your car with algae biofuel?

About The Author

Julia is a writer living in New York City. She's written hundreds of articles about the auto industry, from demystifying car insurance to exploring the latest vehicle technologies."