Posted by Rick Civelli | 01.23.2013 | Conservation
Turning Over A New “Leaf”
With each new year there are New Year’s resolution. Each year, we at Sea Turtle Camp try to be a greener company, which includes our energy and fossil fuel usage. However, sometimes the environmental options are not presented clearly and cause confusion. In this blog, we’ll try to clear some of that up.
Reliance of fossil fuels poses two problems. First, they represent a diminishing, non-renewable resource, so we need to seek out even riskier and environmentally hazardous deposits – think the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The second complication is that as these fuels are combusted they release harmful greenhouse gases. As fossil fuel use continues to threaten the ecosystem, potential solutions need to be seriously considered. While biofuel alternatives have been discussed for several decades, the talk seems to become muted in the climate change debate and complicated by chemical confusion.
One of the biggest arguments against renewable biofuel options is both the loss of arable land and a potential food source. While crops like soybeans, corn, sugar cane, canola, and sunflowers have the ability to produce oil which can be converted to fuel they do require land, water, and some energy input to do so. And the yield can vary. According to data from Exxon’s Biofuel team 1 acre of soybeans yields about 50 gallons of biofuel, 1 acre of corn yields about 250, with similar amount of land for planted with sugar cane gives forth about 450 gallons.
The process of extracting the oil from the different products can also be energy intensive. For example to get oil from corn we take the kernels (currently, there isn’t a good way to use the entire crop) and grind them down. Then warm water and yeast are added, causing fermentation to occur and giving you alcohol (ethanol to be exact.) While corn production uses the edible portion of the plant, soybeans do not. The protein portion can be extracted for human consumption, and the remainder used to create oil. Sugar cane requires the burning of the entire field, further releasing greenhouse gases, so a more effective way could be found. Grasses, especially those that are inedible, seem to be good options, and switchgrass could hold much promise.
However, the greatest hope could come from the ocean in a most humble form: algae. This organism conjures images of large stalked forests of kelp or leafy seaweed growths covering l rocks, but that is only a fraction of the algae group. They are a diverse group, being unicellular or multicellular, microscopic or up to 65 meters tall, and grow in either salt or freshwater. With climate change forecasting increasing demand for freshwater supplies, it would be unwise to lock up large quantities of the precious resource for algal growth, but saltwater is ever abundant.
Scientists from UC San Diego have recently concluded that the marine algae can be just as capable as producing biofuels as their freshwater counterparts. This means that arable land can be left for farming, freshwater can continue to be used by plants and animals, and fuels can come from the ocean. And, since the algae are photosynthetic they take up carbon dioxide, helping sequester one of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Oh, and the yield? Up to 2000 gallons of fuel per acre.
While the highly charged climate change debate will most likely spark considerable debate for the foreseeable future, the search for ways to ameliorate the problem needs to be achieving greater prominence. And the humble algae needs to be given serious consideration.