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Algae Can Be Grown As Biofuel, Even In Cold Climates

In the natural world, algae’s presence is often unwanted. Its overgrowth sucks the oxygen out of bodies of water, depleting biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems. And when it appears in increasing supply along popular shorelines, property values drop, hurting local economies.

Algae isn’t all bad, however. It can serve as a useful biofuel, a cleaner alternative to oil and gas. As well, the slimy green plant can be turned into pigments, cosmetics components and hydrogels. It’s also an efficient absorber of carbon emissions, and could play a roll in controlling climate change.

But even with the known benefits of algae, cultivation in cooler climes, like Finland, has proved challenging. Given the lack daylight in the winter months of northern regions, algae isn’t a profitable biofuel in many places. But new research in Finland shows algae can bloom without light.

Algae is mostly nourished by heat, not light, and scientists at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are hoping they can find an efficient way to heat up vats of algae for commercial uses.

“The most sensible thing to do in Finland is to integrate cultivation into industrial processes with spill heat and to integration into industrial processes with spill heat and focus development on the production of biofuels and biochemical compounds, and on nutrient removal from effluents,” project manager and VTT scientist Mona Arnold said. “Algae can also be used to recover nutrients, organic impurities and heavy metals from waste and waste water.”

Scientists at VTT say algae production isn’t yet profitable enough to be sustained by commercial market, but believe it can be if researchers can find enough uses — so that none of an algae bloom is wasted.

The researchers hope they can perfect growing conditions. In addition to creating biofuels, they think algae could be used to control carbon emissions in the summertime — when growing conditions are most ideal — and then be used to clean waste water in the winter.

Research into the environmental and commercial benefits of algae is growing around the world. Advances in algae production have even inspired the launch of a startup company called Phenometrics — a spinoff of Michigan State research efforts.

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