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June 30, 2009, 1:45 pm

Fuel from air? Algae can do it!

Algae can use carbon dioxide in air to make ethanol, which can be used as a fuel.

[New York Times]

What was discovered?

Think of algae like simple, often just single-celled, plants, even though they are not classified as plants (for reasons we do not need to look at here).

They make their food by photosynthesis taking carbon dioxide from the water around them and using light energy to fix it into organic molecules and producing oxygen as a by-product.

The molecule chlorophyll is used by most algae to trap light energy.

What's new about this research is the ability to grow algae on a large scale and extract ethanol , which can be used as a fuel for cars or as a starting point for making plastics.


A demonstration model of the production factory has been set up to try to solve the problems of scaling up the extraction of ethanol from algae to an industrial scale.  

What problems do you think there will be?

Why is it important?

Ethanol has already been used successfully as a fuel for cars and other vehicles, for example in Brazil. It is a cleaner fuel than oil or natural gas, producing fewer air pollutants .

The raw materials for making plastics usually comes from natural gas, but as supplies of natural gas run out, new sources of organic molecules are needed for plastics.


You could estimate the amount of algae in a pond, lake, stream or river near you (but take care not to fall in!!!) -see how the experts do the sampling here

More algae is not necessarily a good thing... it could be an early warning of water pollution, called eutrophication



See also

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Plants find it easy to trap sunlight into organic molecules which can be used as fuel - so why can't we? Photosynthesis is not so easy to copy, but now we are one step closer... Paul...