Cornell scientists believe marine algae may bring the next green revolution, in more ways than one. Prof. Xingen Lei, animal sciences, and his lab are currently investigating the potential environmental and economic benefits of using algae in biofuels and animal feed.
Algae could be used as an energy source in the form of biofuels to produce a protein-rich by-product for commercial animal feed, according to Lei.
“These algae are very rich in high-quality protein. They are also a good source of minerals, vitamins and essential fatty acids. Some types of algae can have up to 60- to 70-percent protein, compared with about seven to eight percent in corn,” Lei said.
He added that the algae could produce financial and environmental benefits as well.
“Algae are a great source for biofuel, but the cost is very high. By using the by-product as animal feed, we can help relieve the problem,” Lei said. “Using the residual biomass caused by production can make algal biofuels much more economically viable.”
Algae are also a green alternative to corn according to Prof. Charles Greene, earth and atmospheric sciences, one of the leaders of the team studying the algae.
“If you’re growing corn to produce ethanol for energy and to produce animal feeds, then both of these things are competing with food production,” Greene said. “If we can use the protein by-product from algal biofuel production as a supplement to animal feed, then we can reduce the amount of corn we grow for ethanol production.”
Algae use may also mitigate the many adverse environmental side effects to growing corn, according to Greene.
Growing corn requires a large amount of fertilizer and fresh water. The water carries the fertilizer as runoff into larger waterways which eventually lead to the ocean.
According to Greene, the fertilizer triggers an algal bloom. The end result is a large span of ocean that lacks oxygen and, thus, life. There is a large “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of runoff from the Mississippi River. Because microalgae do not require heavy fertilizer or fresh water to grow, growing the algae does not result in these harmful effects.
Greene said algae may also prove to have positive effects on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
“Algae require elevated levels of carbon dioxide in order to grow rapidly for algal biofuel production,” Greene said. “We are trying to come up with ways to help the algae take up carbon dioxide more efficiently from the atmosphere so we don’t have to provide it from highly concentrated sources, like the emissions from power plants.”
Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been shown to cause a more pronounced greenhouse effect, which can lead to global warming. Greene said that if scientists can devise a way for algae to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more efficiently, then it may help mitigate global warming’s effects.
“We are still doing research to learn how to keep the costs of producing algal biofuels down while still producing high net energy and maintaining a small carbon footprint,” Greene said. “It takes energy to make energy, so we want to make sure that we produce more energy than we use while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
Although research has shown algae’s nutritional, environmental and economic potential, Greene said there are still obstacles preventing full commercial production. All current algal biofuel facilities are small — usually only a few acres. Greene said that creating a commercial-scale facility would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“There aren’t many people you can approach to get that kind of money. You have to prove it on the smaller scales and make a compelling case that it will still work when you scale it up,” Greene said. “There are no commercial-scale algal biofuel facilities yet; however, it’s just a matter of time before somebody takes the first step.”