Pond scum used to be an unsightly, nasty inconvenience. But lowly algae are now being touted by some as the crop that can completely replace the world's need for fossil fuel.
The single-celled plant that uses lots and lots of carbon dioxide, or CO2, and sunlight is the hottest development in the race to produce commercially feasible alternatives to traditional hydrocarbons.
Plus, it grows fast, is biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
"It does not create cellulose. They don't need stalks. They don't need leaves. They don't need branches," said Geoffrey Price of the University of Tulsa at the recent Energy Summit sponsored by The Oklahoma Academy. "They don't require fixed nitrogen, which means you don't have to fertilize them."
In fact, algae will grow in about any kind of water: fresh, salt, even wastewater. In the ocean, it's a massive "sink," or user of carbon dioxide.
And when algae are compared to switchgrass, rapeseed, corn or other alternative fuels, it's far more efficient.
"Algae just beats the heck out of them "¦ in terms of the hydrocarbons they can make," said Price, who holds a doctorate.
ALGAE VS. BIOFUEL
In fact, algae can produce 30 times more energy per acre than the other crops promoted for biofuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
"They are food neutral. They do not compete with food crops," Price said.
And the energy department estimates growing algae would require 15,000 square miles " or about the state of Maryland " to supply all the fuel needs in the U.S.
"Alga has pretty good attributes. It uses sun more efficiently than anything else," said Richard Mallinson, the C.M. Sliepcevich professor of chemical engineering at the University of Oklahoma.
Mallinson, who holds a doctorate, said algae also don't have to compete with other food crops.
"You could grow it in desert areas," he said. "You could use fairly poor quality, brackish water."
Another plus " algae can also be used within the existing crude oil, gasoline, diesel and jet fuel infrastructure.
"We don't have to rebuild refineries," Price said.
Algae are one of the focuses of OU's Center for Biomass Refining at the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center.
"I think we can make rapid progress to be a player in Oklahoma," Mallinson said.
He said Oklahoma State University is also growing algae for research purposes.
Price said the biggest challenges include extraction to hydrocarbons. There's the need for capital investment over the next five to 10 years. And then there are predators.
"Things like to eat them," he said.
Mallinson said the Oklahoma Legislature has provided support, thanks to former Oklahoma Secretary of Energy David Fleischaker. "Carol Cole-Frowe