EarthTalk: How far along are we at developing
algae-based and other higher yield sources of biofuels?
– Jason McCabe, Tullahoma, TN
researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy report
that it would take only 15,000 square miles -- less
than 1/7 the area now used to harvest all of the
corn across the country -- to produce enough algae
fuel to replace all of our petroleum fuel.
Texas A&M AgriLife
few years ago biofuels were all the rage. Environmental
advocates to national security hawks alike were extolling
the virtues of ethanol and biodiesel as a carbon-neutral
bridge to our energy future. But the bubble burst when it
became apparent that there wasn’t enough agricultural
land in the U.S. or elsewhere to grow sufficient amounts
of corn, palm and other crops to feed both people and their
engines. To boot, the process of extracting and distributing
biofuels has proven anything but carbon neutral. And with
ever cheaper natural gas widely available now, paying a
premium for ethanol or biodiesel seemed frivolous.
a new generation of biofuels based on algae might just change
all that. One of the major problems with biofuels that algae
could solve is space, since algae can yield as much as 100
times more fuel per unit area than other so-called “second
generation” biofuel crops (e.g. non-food crops or
non-food waste parts of food crops). Federal researchers
from the U.S. Department of Energy report that it would
take only 15,000 square miles—less than 1/7 the area
now used to harvest all the corn across the country—to
produce enough algae fuel to replace all of our petroleum
burning algae-derived fuel in an engine or factory generates
carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions just like fossil fuels do,
the algae itself requires CO2 to photosynthesize—so
overall no new CO2 is added to the atmosphere. Furthermore,
any CO2 created through processing or refinement can be
captured and re-directed to the growing algae beds. And
unlike other biofuel feedstocks, algae production has minimal
impact on freshwater supplies—especially when it can
be undertaken in ocean waters or even wastewater.
least three well-funded ventures are poised to ramp up production
of commercially viable quantities of algae-derived crude
oil over the next couple of years. California’s Solazyme
is building an algae fuel factory in Brazil in partnership
with food processing giant Bunge and expects to manufacture
100,000 metric tons of fuel there each year. Solazyme is
also retooling an Archer Daniels Midland factory in Clinton,
Iowa to produce another 100,000 metric tons of algae fuel
per year domestically.
company ready to make the leap into commercial scale production
of algae fuel is Sapphire Energy, which operates a 2,200
acre algae farm in New Mexico where oil is harvested across
70 open ponds and refined on site. Sapphire—Bill Gates
is a big investor—expects the facility, which goes
online next year, to generate some 10,000 barrels of crude
oil a day by 2018.
a third player in the emerging algae fuel market is Synthetic
Genomics, the brainchild of genomics guru Craig Venter,
who beat the U.S. government in sequencing the human genome
and at a fraction of the cost. The company, which last year
purchased an 81-acre site in California’s Imperial
Valley to scale up and test its synthetic algae strains
across 42 open ponds, plans to genetically modify algae
to optimize its oil output. ExxonMobil signed a $600 million
development deal with the company to further the cutting
Sapphire Energy, www.sapphireenergy.com;
Synthetic Genomics, www.syntheticgenomics.com.
NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!
EarthTalk: How are monarch butterflies doing
today? They used to pass through my area in big numbers
but in the last few years there seem to be many fewer.
– Bill Wright, Erie, PA
butterflies have been in sharp population decline
over the last two decades -- a process that has
accelerated in just the last few years -- due to
habitat loss, eradication of the plants it depends
upon and other environmental factors. Pictured:
a monarch caterpillar on milkweed buds.
The monarch butterfly,
royally adorned in black, white and reddish-orange and able
to migrate as far as 2,800 miles, is a true wonder of nature.
Each year monarchs travel from Canada and the U.S. to hibernate
in the forests of central Mexico. But in recent years the
monarchs have been in sharp population decline due to habitat
loss, eradication of the plants it depends upon and other
The decline in
monarchs has been going on for two decades, but the last
few years have been particularly worrisome. Mexico’s
National Commission of Natural Protected Areas reports a
59 percent decline in the area of forest there occupied
by overwintering monarchs since December 2011. Meanwhile,
the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that overwintering
populations along the California coast have shrunk from
over a million individuals counted at 101 sites in 1997
to less than 60,000 at just 74 sites in 2009. The International
Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains the
“Red List” of endangered species around the
world, recognizes the monarchs’ annual migration as
an “endangered biological phenomenon.”
Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at
the University of Kansas that engages citizen-scientists
in monarch monitoring and conservation efforts, habitat
destruction is one key driver in the monarch’s demise:
“New roads, housing developments and agricultural
expansion…all transform a natural landscape in ways
that make it impossible for monarchs to live there.”
Also, drought and record-high temperatures in North America
in 2012 triggered an earlier-than-usual monarch migration.
This disrupted the butterflies’ breeding cycle by
drying out their eggs prematurely.
The hot weather
has also reduced the nectar content of the milkweed plants
that monarch larvae depend on. In addition, milkweed is
becoming scarce due to farmers’ increasing reliance
on herbicides. Most of the soy and corn crops grown in the
U.S. are genetically engineered to resist herbicides. This
means even more chemical spraying—and far fewer milkweed
plants. Nectar producing plants that attract adult butterflies
are facing a similar fate, further complicating survival
for the monarch.
be easy to stem the tide of human development that threatens
the species’ long term survival. In 2008 the Commission
for Environmental Cooperation, set up under the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to help the U.S., Canada and
Mexico coordinate on environmental initiatives, published
its North American Monarch Conservation Plan to establish
a conservation blueprint for the butterflies. Key aspects
of the plan include the creation of incentives for the conservation
of overwintering sites and the restoration of breeding habitat
throughout the butterfly’s extensive range.
In the meantime,
the Mexican government has worked with WWF and other groups
and made strides in restricting logging in areas critical
to monarch populations. And in the U.S., monarch habitat
restoration work in California and other parts of the U.S.
have helped provide the butterflies some relief. Whether
these and other efforts are enough to rescue the monarchs
remains to be seen.
Monarch Watch, www.monarchwatch.org;
Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected