Why Should You Care About Algae Bioreactors?
Whether you believe a changing climate is manmade or not, renewable and sustainable means of energy production should be on your radar. It is simply not a sustainable model to continue to use fossil fuels at the rate humanity is right now. One day, the reserves will run dry and our ability of acquiring energy could prove to be much more challenging. Renewable energy systems offer more security and economic independence from other countries because we will not be relying on foreign oil. Also, renewable energy technologies could allow us to be free from oil-related conflict. Some of the current means of renewable energy production are solar, wind, and wave; however, microalgae bioreactors offer a new method of producing energy in a sustainable manner.
Algae bioreactors work through photosynthesis. This important naturally occurring biochemical process is used by all plants, and without it more carbon dioxide would be built up in the atmosphere and there would be less oxygen available for us to breathe. Photosynthesis uses sunlight to break down carbon dioxide and water to create glucose (a form of energy also used by the human body) and oxygen. The glucose, or resulting biomass, that results from this process can then be used as fuel and burned. This ability to produce fuel is partly what makes algae bioreactors so promising and exciting. Because the bioreactor system is using carbon dioxide that is already in the air, when the product is burned it is essentially the same carbon dioxide being released again. This means that no additional carbon dioxide is being produced. That carbon dioxide will continue to go through the cycle of being taken up by the algae and being released when the biomass is burned. This makes microalgae bioreactors carbon neutral. Fossil fuels on the other hand, have been stored in the Earth’s crust for millions of years. This means that the chemicals produced by burning fossil fuels are being reintroduced to Earth’s cycles. So when burning fossil fuels, we are putting something back into the atmosphere that has not been there for millions of years, and this shifts the current balance of the atmosphere. It is important to realize, that once the atmosphere was very heavy with carbon dioxide, and this is likely not a condition that could sustain human life.
Algae bioreactors are multifunctional because they can be designed as open or closed systems. Open systems are like ponds or fountains, while closed systems are encased in transparent materials like glass. Due to the ability to be open or closed system, algae bioreactors have found a variety of different uses. They can theoretically be used in public spaces like fountains to control carbon dioxide levels, and even produce useable biomass which is stored beneath the system. Algae bioreactors can even be used to provide hydrogen to fuel cells which are incredibly efficient units that currently use fossil fuels.
Perhaps one of the most promising fields for algae bioreactors is in civil engineering and architecture. Algae bioreactors can actually look very beautiful in contrast to the cold grey metal we are familiar with in many modern buildings. While algae bioreactors are still fairly new, they are already being integrated into building facades and can provide the building with heat and running water. The photo to the left shows a new construction in Hamburg, Germany which is the first residential building of its kind to use algae bioreactors in this way.
Additionally, algae bioreactors can produce biofuel to meet a variety needs. Currently, biofuels are a more controversial matter because the lands used to grow the required crops are areas that many believe should be used for food production. The problem is that these traditional crops like corn will only grow during one season, and food is more essential to sustain life than energy to power cars and other such luxuries. But this is where algae bioreactors become especially interesting. They can produce the needed biomass constantly unlike current crops used for biofuel like corn which grows during a limited time of year. They need less space when compared to corn, and much of the corn plant is not even used in the biofuel. This leads to a large amount of unnecessary waste for a very small gain. Algae bioreactors may be a part of the answer to solve the conflict within the biofuel industry, but until then the bioreactor systems still need to be improved.
While algae bioreactors show a lot of promise, they still have some issues that need to be addressed. First, contamination is a serious problem that lowers the efficiency of the bioreactor system. In energy production it is important that the unit operate at, or at least near maximum efficiency to produce the most useable energy. A second issue is that quite a bit of space may be required, and in cities where buildings cast shadows these large bioreactors will need to be placed high were they can access sunlight. Location is very important, and a great deal of thought must go into installation, especially in cities where it becomes a massive undertaking to install the system. But even though algae bioreactors may have a ways to go, the outlook is good. A lot has changed in the last century, and it was not long ago that people like you and I were heating their homes with nothing more than a central fireplace that filled the home with a smoky air. Who knows what the next few years will bring?