The debate over the feasibility of biofuels may be coming to an end. Researchers at the University of Texas have found a way to produce nanocellulose – a primary component in many kinds of biofuels – from algae. The discovery could allow for biofuels – as well as a multitude of other materials – to be harvested from the algae, rendering the complaints about growing the raw components for biofuels moot.
Currently, the most common way to create biofuels is to use the sugars that can be found in the edible parts of many different kinds of plant. This requires “wasting” useful land growing biofuel plants, rather than using it to grow edible crops. In addition, it is also necessary to clear forested land in order to allow sufficient space for the growing of fuel crops. To produce sufficient biofuel amounts, severe deforestation would need to take place, which would increase the already high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide with fewer trees to help clean the air.
The biofuel algae solves both problems. It can grow anywhere and doesn’t require that large masses of land be reappropriated in order to create growing fields. It also absorbs carbon dioxide, so it would aid in air scrubbing and the reduction of unbreathable, destructive atmospheric gas.
“If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever,” said University of Texas spokesman R. Malcolm Brown, Jr.
Indeed, the algae’s ability to create nanocellulose makes it seem like a wonder-plant. The long-chain molecules that it is capable of making can be used for more than just biofuel purposes. Their rigidity is as good as Kevlar body armor. Their flexibility is similar to many plastics, and they are capable of conducting electricity.
“We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively. It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products,” said Brown.
The algae also doesn’t require any special food to be provided for it. Like any other plant, it survives entirely on water and sunlight thanks to the bacteria that is associated with all forms of blue-green algae.
There is no way to determine when the research will be complete on the nanocellulose-producing algae, but scientists feel they are very close. Once completed, the algae could change the way the world runs, ushering a brave new world for energy as well as the way many household items are constructed.