Marine Microalgae: A Sustainable Solution for Climate, Energy and Food Security

November 21, 2016

DURHAM, N.C. – Marine microalgae could be the next big thing for combating global warming and providing a sustainable source of food and fuel for Earth’s growing population, according to a paper published this month in the journal Oceanography.

The paper was produced by scientists in the multi-institutional Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium (MAGIC), headquartered at the Duke University Marine Laboratory.

“We may have stumbled onto the next green revolution,” says Charles H. Greene, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.

ICMM could reduce fossil fuel use by supplying liquid hydrocarbon biofuels for the aviation and cargo shipping industries, Greene and his co-authors argue.

The protein-rich, defatted biomass remaining after the microalgae’s lipids have been removed to make these fuels could then be converted into nutritious feeds for domesticated farm animals such as chickens and pigs, or aquacultured animals such as salmon and shrimp.

It could perhaps also be converted into protein-rich food for humans.

Zackary Johnson, Arthur P. Kaupe Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, leads the MAGIC consortium and was one of Green’s co-authors on the new paper.

Growing enough algae to meet the current global liquid fuel demand would require an area of about 800,000 square miles – or slightly less than three times the size of Texas – Johnson notes. But because it would not require arable land or freshwater, production could be located in arid, subtropical regions where few other agricultural crops will grow, such as in the deserts of Mexico, North Africa, the Middle East and Australia.  

And in addition to biofuels, this production would also yield nearly 2.4 billion tons of protein-rich byproduct for agricultural or human consumption.  That’s roughly 10 times the amount of soy protein currently produced worldwide each year.

A commercial microalgae production facility of about 2,500 acres would cost between $400 million and $500 million, the new paper estimates.

“That may seem like a lot of money,” Greene says, “but integrated solutions to the world’s greatest challenges will pay for themselves many times over during the remainder of this century. The costs of inaction are too steep to even contemplate.

“We can grow algae for food and fuels in only one-tenth to one-hundredth the amount of land we currently use to grow food and energy crops. (That means) we can relieve the pressure to convert rainforests to palm plantations in Indonesia and soy plantations in Brazil,” he says. “We got into this looking to produce fuels, and in the process, we found an integrated solution to so many of society’s greatest challenges.”

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CITATION: “Marine Microalgae: Climate, Energy and Food Security from the Sea,” C.H. Greene, M.E. Huntley, I. Archibald, L.N. Gerber, D.L. Sills, J. Granados, J.W. Tester, C.M. Beal, M.J. Walsh, R.R. Bidigare, S.L. Brown, W.P. Cochlan, Z.I. Johnson, X.G. Lei, S.C. Machesky, D.G. Redalje, R.E. Richardson, V. Kiron, and V. Corless; Nov. 7, 2016, Oceanography. https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.91

NOTE: This article is based on a news release issued by the Cornell University Media Relations Office. 

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