Algae to the Rescue?

Today WGY introduces guest columnist Dave Aakhus, a fellow Gallatin student concentrating in globalization and sustainable development. This post, about a promising new concept for biofuels and carbon sequestration, is in line with Dave’s focus on the economics of renewable energy.

AlfeaI’ve always wondered about how quickly we went from the Western Frontier to the Final Frontier, snubbing the good ‘ole ocean along the way. It seems a British researcher, though, is reclaiming those unknown bounds for the seas again. A recent Economist article reports that John Munford has proposed to scatter iron particles around the ocean in an area the size of the North Sea, in an effort to induce saltwater algae growth. Since algae naturally captures carbon dioxide, it could have great potential in reducing global warming. Mr. Munford also proposes to harvest the algae and utilize its densely-packed energy as a biofuel, perhaps to replace mineral oils.

The obvious disadvantage to such a project is that we are messing with nature, and that carries potentially disastrous consequences. Similar projects have been tested in freshwater ponds with positive results, but oceans, on the other hand, are quite big. A project on the scale that Munford imagines could transform entire ecosystems, causing a rippling effect throughout the seas. Who knows what all that extra algae would do to oceanic food chains? Or how being in the North Sea would affect nearby glacial melting? To add to all that doubt, how often would we have to sprinkle iron fillings on the water to maintain the algae? Would it evolve to human dependency?

These are just a few of the basic questions that Mr. Munford and the scientific community must answer before even thinking about implementation. Yet, this idea – generally called biofuel aquaculture – is exactly the kind of innovative thinking we could use in combating global warming. The limits of wind turbine size, the current solar silicon scarcity, and disillusionment of ethanol are showing that there is no silver bullet. And with other solutions still finding their practical role, like carbon emissions trading, it’s best to have another option on the table.

That being said, biofuel aquaculture is not ideal. Greater energy efficiency, more renewable sources, and electric/hydrogen vehicles are the primary goals to strive towards. But not knowing what choices are available, we find ourselves following too narrow of a strategy, putting too many eggs in not enough baskets. We should pursue our slimy green friend and its prospects, but focus our main efforts on those strategies mentioned above that aren’t so out-of-the-blue.

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4 thoughts on “Algae to the Rescue?

  1. Judith says:

    The bulk of the solution, if there is to be a real one, to the situation we’re in globally is *not* to be found, I think, in re-tooling our energy uses as you suggest. I believe real hope lies in learning to consume less, drastically less.

    Very, very simple — but maybe not easy.

  2. Dave Aakhus says:

    Judith,

    I agree that clean renewable energy is not necessarily the “bulk of the solution” to the “situation we’re in globally,” but that we have already seen progress in terms of energy efficiency (appliances, vehicles, grid management) and advancements in clean energy, especially solar, wind, and hydro. Those advancements are making such energy sources price-competitive with fossil fuels. Energy efficiency and homegrown clean energy are also much more politically achievable at the state and federal levels.

    I also agree that there is a problem in overconsumption. Whether it is caused by greed, a psycho-social pathology, or simply being out of balance with nature, consumption beyond meeting basic material needs definitely exists in the U.S. But I don’t share your hope that we can learn to consume less. We live in a material culture that is most blantantly manifested, as economist Thornstein Veblen pointed out, as conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste. Deeply engraned within our social lives is the desire to show-off our wealth, self-expression, status, etc. even if that means wasting resources and destroying nature.

    “Learning” to consume less, as I see it, is not simply a matter of teaching people and raising their awareness about environmental concerns, but a process of imposing your values about consumption onto other people. It may be immoral to allow people to consume as much as they want, but it is my personal belief that a person should be allowed to. And that is why much of my focus on implementing strategies for a sustainable future is based in structural changes, like energy sources. That where I see the potential to preserve individual economic freedom while regaining balance between humans and nature.

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