How Florida’s Algae Blooms are About to Turn into an Energy Boom

When someone mentions algae, one of the first things people think of is Florida’s toxic buildup of green slime. It began in Lake Okeechobee, the “hole” in the center of any map of the state. But it didn’t end there…

When huge rainfall threatened to breach an aging 80-year old earthen dam in 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers opened up spillways to drain the smelling sludge to the ocean – and they’ve kept at it ever since.

Unfortunately, that just pushed the crisis to the seashore communities that now had to deal with the slime.

But behind all this smelly misery, there is a huge energy opportunity building…

With support from the very top of the U.S. Government…

Algae Blooms are Just a Little Too Much of Nature

These “algal” blooms are natural, caused by the growth of single-celled organisms known as cyanobacteria. The green (and smelly) slime they create is often incorrectly called “blue-green algae.”

Whatever you call it, the toxins it releases are dangerous to humans, causing a range of results from skin rashes to death.

But the problems don’t end there.

When a cyanobacteria bloom dies off, the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water decrease, killing huge amounts of fish through asphyxiation. This, along with rising concerns on the coast from the drain off, is the current crisis in Lake Okeechobee.

Now, small amounts of cyanobacteria naturally occur in all freshwater lakes and streams. The problem at Lake Okeechobee isn’t that – it’s their number, an issue that’s intensifying and is increasingly apparent in other parts of the globe.

The cause, in Florida and elsewhere, is the rising level of phosphorus in the lake. Phosphorus is the main nutrient for “algal bloom” growth spurts, and enters Lake Okeechobee from the watershed to the north.

That watershed, in turn, has a constantly rising level of phosphorous from agriculture, dairy farms, and other human activity.

This last factor is becoming particularly important…

Human Activity is Causing the Boom in Algae

Abutting dairy farms and cattle ranches, the watershed starts just south of Orlando. There, the population in the watershed area has more than doubled in size – from less than one million in 1980 to more than 2.6 million today.

And all the myriad byproducts of that many people are flowing straight into Lake Okeechobee…

Even so, this wouldn’t have been such a major problem in the past, when water flowed from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades as a shallow river up to 50 miles wide.

But about 60 years ago, this flow was blocked to offset flooding and expand agriculture. The resulting stagnant freshwater became a time bomb for periodic buildups of phosphorus – and the resulting algal blooms.

Altogether, this makes for a nasty experience in an otherwise beautiful place… except for one interesting element.

Earth’s Original “Solar Plants” are Tailor-Made for Biofuels

You see, cyanobacteria are autotropic – which means that they make their own energy from the sun. These were almost certainly the first organisms on Earth to practice photosynthesis, thereby constituting one of the fundamental building blocks of life as we know it.

That has resulted in research into how that energy generation can be harnessed. Biofuels has become a major consideration in renewable energy research, with cyanobacteria an important element in that move.

Now, we’ve gone through several stages already of this “algae revolution.” In its heyday a few years ago, I remarked that hardly a week would go by without some researcher proclaiming an energy breakthrough.

I’d call each phone call an announcement of my “algae of the week.”

It’s been my view for a while now that biofuels in general, and algae in particular, are a key ingredient in attempts to replace (or at least reduce reliance upon) conventional fuels.

As I’ve noted here in Oil & Energy Investor before, successful applications have already been made in using biofuels as a substitute for conventional oil-based jet fuel (high-grade kerosene).

The advantage here is that the transition from oil to biofuels can happen without any modification needed to aircraft engines or to the delivery, distribution, and storage infrastructure.

But a problem remains…

The White House and Pentagon are Now Both All-In on Biofuels

While the military is already intent on reducing reliance on foreign sources of oil and improving the security of its fuel by incorporating biofuels. But biofuels are still neither available nor cost-effective for broader parts of commercial airline traffic.

A new, successful biofuel would actually result in a combination of alternative sources being used to make fuel: algae (like that clogging up the Lake Okeechobee); waste fats; greases; agricultural and municipal solid wastes; crops grown specifically for use as biofuel; forest and timber residues; wood chips; and many others.

There is some real progress underway here to integrate multiple biological sources into one coherent fuel stream.

The initial results and expectations are contained in a recently released report from the White House’s National Science and Technology Council entitled Federal Alternative Jet Fuels Research and Development Strategy (you can see the full report here).

This new report outlines plans to lower the cost of alternative jet fuels through coordinated efforts by a number of government agencies led by the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Transportation, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Much of the main effort emphasizes the biomass feedstocks for the fuel, conversion technologies, commercial development and production, fuel testing, evaluation, and solutions for a range of technical challenges.

I expect to see a rapidly increasing visibility for the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, where next-generation sustainable biofuels and the technologies necessary will be emerging.

Given that these alternative fuels, especially when it comes to jet fuel, have a very positive contribution to make in the already strong drive toward carbon-neutral aviation, expect this movement to have some political consequences as well.

Here in Oil & Energy Investor, we’ll be following this new biofuel push closely.

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