Addressing sustainability issues in algal production systems
Geller, Daniel P
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Algae based production systems have the potential to supply copious amounts of feedstock for bioproducts such as fuel, feed, plastics and even food. It has been suggested that algae are capable of out-producing terrestrial plants in terms of sheer biomass per unit of land area. The promise of algae is great, however the potential of these aquatic organisms has yet to be fully realized in large-scale applications. This is due in large part to engineering challenges that confront this developing technology. These challenges exist throughout the production chain. Recently, concerns over these systems have surfaced in response to new regulations being enacted throughout the world, which have brought into question the sustainability of algal systems. This study seeks to address critical issues to enhance sustainability of algal production in environmental and economic aspects. These issues include water usage, carbon footprint, nutrient requirements, and cost of supply chain. This study examines snow algae, a group of algae known to thrive under low temperature regimes. This study revealed that these psychrophilic algae may also be adapted to low light levels as well. Snow algae were shown to grow and function better under low light conditions. Likewise, final lipid concentration appeared to be enhanced at low light levels in one of the snow algal species. It is anticipated that these algae may enhance sustainability by allowing algae to be grown year-round in certain climates using a seasonal cropping system similar to those employed in terrestrial agricultural systems. Currently, much proposed and demonstration phase algae production is limited to warm season operations. Extending algae growth into the cool-season could enable year-round production in a greater number of locations. This study also revealed that for any algal system to achieve sustainability, the processes used throughout the value-chain must be carefully selected to complement one another. Individual unit operations cannot be selected in a void and a systems approach must be used to insure maximum sustainability. Such a systems approach could enhance economic viability and reduce environmental impacts associated with the large-scale production of algae bringing these systems closer to sustainable operation.