Oils from green algae are detected in petroleum and coal deposits, suggesting that it has been a contributor to developing them. One variety is a prime candidate for biofuel production because it accumulates hydrocarbons in 30 to 40 percent of its dry weight, and is capable of reaching close to 80 percent. Dr. Timothy Devarenne is with a team trying to understand more about the algae’s potential.
“The oil that this particular algae makes is very chemically similar to petroleum, so we can process this oil just like you do petroleum and get the same products out. You can get gasoline or diesel of kerosene. And chemically it’s identical to petroleum products, and by understanding what genes it has, maybe we can manipulate this algae to make more oil or grow faster. In theory, if you grow enough of this, it can make a significant in the amount of petroleum that we use.”
Scientists are trying to understand the cellular machinery of the algae at the molecular level to improve characteristics such as oil production and faster growth rates.
“The algae has contributed to the oil that you find in current petroleum deposits. It’s a fresh water algae and it’s found throughout the world. You can find it on every continent in the world. You can find it in just about any pond anywhere. The oil that it makes—it’s not sure why, particularly, it makes it float to the top of a pond so that it can get more access to the light and the nutrients that are closer to the surface of a pond.”
Devareene says as a group, algae may be the only photosynthetic organism capable of producing enough biofuel to meet transportation fuel demands.