Making fuel from slime

Making fuel from slime


Algae grows in a laboratory flask. The slimy green stuff you see in ponds needs only water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow. Photo: Bloomberg

By Cameron Dueck

The world is looking for an alternative to oil because it pollutes the environment when we use it and new supplies are getting hard to find.

A large oil spill that resulted from the explosion of a BP oil rig on April 20 is still polluting the Gulf of Mexico.

Algae, that slimy green stuff you see along the water's edge, are becoming a popular alternative to oil.

Scientists are trying to grow algae in large quantities and turn them into fuel for your car. Many companies, including Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical, are spending money on such research.

Algae need water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow. They can produce two types of fuel - ethanol and biodiesel. Both types are much cleaner than burning petroleum-based diesel or gas.

Scientists have been working for years on ways to turn plants into fuel. If you ferment the sugar from a plant, you get a type of alcohol that can drive an engine. This product is called bioethanol, and is widely used in the United States and Brazil.

There is controversy, however. Biofuel can be produced from any organic material; corn, soya beans and certain types of grasses are commonly used. This means people grow food crops to make car fuel - not for eating.

Algae are different because we don't eat algae. They can be produced using ocean or waste water, thus protecting supplies of fresh water, and algae fuel will not harm the environment if it spills.

However, there are still problems.

Growing algae requires fertiliser, which is bad for the environment, and making ethanol from algae uses a lot of energy.

You won't be able to run your car on algae fuel tomorrow, but energy experts believe this is a good substitute for fossil fuels. That's one small answer to our environmental problems.

Cameron is available to speak to primary and secondary students about environmental and climate change issues as well as his recent Arctic sailing expedition. Contact



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