Algaculture is the purposeful growth of algae for commercial purposes, just as aquaculture is commercial growth of fish. Algae has the potential to fuel the world with minimal land impacts! From 1976 to 1994 the Department of Energy analyzed this possibility under the $20 million Aquatic Species Program (ASP). The ASP found that some varietals of algae could produce roughly 6,000 gallons of oil per acre (compared to 60 to 80 gallons per acre for soybeans)! Two main problems come up for the development of algae though.
Some varietals of algae could produce roughly 6,000 gallons of oil per acre…
The first is isolating the high oil strain algae. While some algae strains produce a tremendous amount of oil, most algae strains store their energy as protein and do not have much oil. There are over 30,000 species of algae in the world and they have been evolving over many millennia to be perfectly adapted to whatever microclimate they naturally grow in. If a high oil strain algae is taken somewhere outside of its immediate climate for development, there will be a local strain of algae that is much better adapted for that climate. The probability is that the local strain will not have much oil. Algae travels through airborne spores so if the algaculture system is exposed to the atmosphere, the local strain of algae will almost certainly take over. The previously high oil content algaculture will turn into a breeding ground for (likely) low oil content local varietals of algae.
The second problem is that the microalgae with high oil content are unicellular organisms that are very difficult to harvest. For such a small object, the surface area to volume ratio is very high. This leads to ruptured cells and lots of oil loss. Simple screening mechanisms also run into problems because of the small porosity needed for the screening. Harvesters are likely to pick up lots of debris and suspended solids, making oil extraction much more difficult.
The traditional solution to this problem has been to close the system off from the atmosphere and to keep the algaculture as hermetic as possible. This keeps out “local invasives” and also keeps the system clear of external suspended solids. This solution works, but is very expensive and is also fragile to exposure accidents.
Biodico has developed a proprietary symbiotic species solution where the algaculture is grown with symbiotic organisms that solve the “local invasives” problem and the screening problem. Biological selection mechanisms are also applied to the algaculture system in order to keep out filamentous algae and other undesirable biology from the system. Symbiotic Species Algaculture (SSA) was developed with assistance from UC Davis, Marquette University, and the California Energy Commission. So far Biodico has been able to achieve 5,300 gallons per acre at multiple locations in low-cost open pond systems!