There's value in pond scum

Monday, February 15, 2010

For water enthusiasts, from fishers to boaters to swimmers and picnickers, the news is simply too good to be true - scientists in the burgeoning renewable energy field say they can make fuel out of algae.

That's right. That stinky, slimy, disgusting plant-life scum that adorns our lakes, ponds, seas, and bays could be a lucrative crop in the production of biofuels.

It may be hard to fathom in the midst of this brutal winter that has frozen over most ponds, lakes, sloughs, and streams, but scentists already have developed a process that extracts the oil from algae and converts it into biodiesel fuel. The algae oil offers the excited researchers a third option as a biodiesel feedstock, after soybean oil and animal fats.

In addition, scientists are working on a process that will take a byproduct of algae after the oil is extracted and convert it into a high-protein human food additive!

The price for soybean oil, the basic feedstock for biodiesel, has skyrocketed considerably since the onset of the innovation in renewable fuels, thereby eroding biodiesel plants' profitability and forcing many plant shutdowns, or delays at other facilities under construction.

Now, reseachers are focusing on "pond scum" algae for biodiesel. It is plentiful and an eyesore and traffic killer on our waters. While it takes a year to grow another crop of soybeans, you can have a new generation of algae in about a week, according to researchers.

So, in the future we may see algae farms popping up all over. Iowa alone uses about 600 million gallons of diesel fuel each year, with one pound of algae required for each gallon of biodiesel. That adds up to a lot of pond scum and cleaner water.

And most algae is green, the color of money.