Researchers are looking for the best algae to use as biofuels.

Algae. Photo: Shutterstock

Biofuel is a renewable alternative energy source that, while it’s catching on, is nowhere close to replacing petroleum. One reason for that is the cost of growing the algae used to produce some of those biofuels. This is where a new project at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory comes in.

The team there is using a complex system of LEDs and other tools to replicate growing conditions in the natural world, in order to determine which strains of algae are the most effective for creating biofuels.

Biofuels made from algae could have a number of benefits, not the least of which is replacing non-renewable energy sources. But adoption of such fuel has been slow because we don’t yet now which are the best algae strains, or the best ways to grow them, in order to maximize output while minimizing cost.

“Algae biofuel is a promising clean energy technology, but the current production methods are costly and limit its use,” said lead researcher Michael Huesemann. “The price of biofuel is largely tied to growth rates. Our method could help developers find the most productive algae strains more quickly and efficiently.”

In the meantime, it’s still cheaper to use traditional fossil fuels in most cases, because the systems to extract, process, and transport those fuels are so well established.

The team working on this project is going to take three years to pare down 30 strains of algae to the four best for use in making biofuels. They’ll be making their discoveries open to the public so that others can build on what they’ve found and further develop better biofuels. Since the PNNL is part of the Department of Energy, it’s in their interest to make research on alternative energy sources as widely available as possible.

The research being done by the PNNL is important because without it, alternative energy will never be seen as viable for industrial use. The world has come a long way since we discovered just how much damage human activity is doing to the Earth, and many people want to embrace alternative energy or other green options. But until those options are financially viable, doing so can cause serious harm to businesses and economies, making them a hard sell at best.