Biodiesel can be produced from vegetation such as soybeans, sunflowers and rapeseed, but the best way to create the fuel may come from a little organism that likes sewage, grows in water and can produce up to 50 percent of its body weight in oil.
“The plus for algae . . . you can grow it in places you can’t grow agricultural crops,” says John Sheehan, strategic analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratories. “It will grow because it doesn’t mind salt water or high salinity.”
Sheehan was one of several authors of a 1998 report that reviewed almost 20 years of government research into algae’s viability as a fuel source.
The report stated it would take about 770 square miles – an area less than a hundredth the size of New Mexico – of algae farmland to produce 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel.
In a single day, the United States consumes 394 million gallons of gasoline, and 200 million gallons of diesel and heating oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
That comes to 216.8 billion gallons of demand in a year. It would take an algae farm almost one-fifth the size of New Mexico to meet it.
But Sheehan said more research needs to be done before algae makes the best option.
For one, the amount of algae that grows in an area needs to increase, he says.
Then there’s the oil. Right now, the amount produced by algae varies from nothing up to 50 percent of its body weight. Typically, it falls within the 25 percent to 30 percent of body weight range, but it needs to consistently hit 50 percent to be efficient, he says. That may require genetic engineering.