Is there a future, even promising future, for pond scum as renewable energy source?
Yes. In fact, promising is perhaps too weak a word. Algae, as pond scum is more respectably known, have the potential of changing the U.S. energy landscape in a myriad of radical but beneficial ways.
Up to now, though, one big obstacle has stood in the way: Genetics.
To be economically viable, algae must become fast growing and better equipped in converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids.
Algae must become nothing less than superalgae. But as the New York Times reported recently, some 100 academic efforts are under way to make this happen. In fact, scientists have already made significant headway. The article reports that one company has already engineered some 4,000 strains of algae using genetic techniques.
A successful outcome of these efforts could have major implications, not only for the nation as a whole, but also for Alabama in particular. As a matter of fact, Alabama, because of its warm climate, could become a major source of algae production.
At Auburn University, Paul Mask, assistant director for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System's agricultural programs, says Alabama's climate is well suited for growing algae. In fact, the blue-green algae that abounds in many catfish ponds and causes producers so many headaches testifies to that fact.
"We have a very long season in which algae can grow in outside ponds, and that makes us capable of growing the algae," Mask says.
On an acre-by-acre basis, algae offer immense potential, even over more conventional bioenergy sources, such as corn and soybeans.
"On a per-acre basis, algae produce a lot more energy than any other crop, and the idea is to grow it here in outside ponds," Mask says.
Again, the future of algae as a viable energy source rides on whether scientists are able to apply the right genetic tweaking to transform conventional algae into strains suitable for commercial production.
This effort has taken many forms. Mask says one group is working in conventional ways, collecting algae from all over the world and selecting the strains that offer the best potential for commercial growth. Others are using genetic engineering to create algae that can be rendered more readily into biofuel.
For Alabama, the next step is developing a pilot program to determine how well algae, in whatever form it ultimately takes, can be grown commercially in the state.
"There's a lot that has been fleshed out on paper, but the next step is to carry algae through the entire process from producing the algae on a part-time annual basis to harvesting it and dehydrating it and converting it into energy."
Climate is not the only factor which makes Alabama potentially ideally suited to commercial algae production.
Masks stresses that a whole professional and academic infrastructure has developed in the state within the last few decades to support Alabama's multimillion-dollar catfish industry.
"They're very familiar with water chemistry and production techniques and all of the things that could provide producers with a lot of technical expertise to proceed with commercial algae production," he says.
"If algae becomes a feasible energy source, we're well positioned to be a part of this process."