With the potential to produce more biomass per unit annually than any other form of biomass, algae-based fuels and building materials could beat the cost of fossil fuels by 2025.
How Algae Generates Power
Algae convert sunlight into energy. Some types of algae store the energy created in natural oils they produce. When conditions are just right, algae produce enough natural oils for scientists to convert into biofuels.
Scientists extract the natural oil by breaking down algae’s cell structure using sound waves or solvents. After extracting the oil, it’s processed at an integrated biorefinery to create energy.
Scientists may also use algae to generate electricity during the photosynthesis process. As chloroplasts undergo a catalysis process that traps sunlight in cells, the cells break down water into electrons, oxygen and hydrogen ions. As the electrons gain more energy and move to a higher energy level, scientists capture them using a gold electrode. The electrode channels the electrons to an outside circuit to generate power in micro photosynthetic power cells.
Benefits of Plant Power
- Carbon neutrality: Algae scrubs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to grow. When integrated into a structure, algae may produce heat, filter exhaust fumes, provide shade and fertilize gardens. Algae cells may be more environmentally friendly than solar photovoltaic cells with crystalline silicon.
- Versatility: In addition to being a sustainable material, scientists use algae to create a variety of building materials, including plastics, paints, flooring and concrete.
- Abundance: Algae grow in freshwater, saltwater or wastewater, and there are nearly 300,000 species. Scientists only culture about 100 species. As research progresses, algae has the potential to produce up to 60 times more oil per acre than other types of plants.
- Availability: As a renewable source of energy, algae are continuously produced naturally and are inexpensive compared to other forms of energy.
- Resilience: Scientists discovered a new form of chlorophyll that allows algae to survive low-light environments. If production is successful, engineers could use the algae in areas that don’t receive a lot of sun, such as the inside of buildings.
Pavement and roof sealants use bitumen. Advances in algae could allow asphalt manufacturers to replace bitumen with microalgae lignin. Lignin is a complex material that gives plants strength. Replacing bitumen with lignin may extend the life of pavement, particularly in warmer climates.
Bio Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) Buildings
The BIQ House in Hamburg, Germany, is the first algae-powered building in the world. Creators obtained algae from the Elbe River and placed in a nutrient- and carbon dioxide-rich water solution within clear rectangular cases. The cases were then installed on the building’s scaffolding, along exterior walls, so the tanks could be turned toward the sun, similar to solar panels.
When the algae used at the BIQ House grow to a certain level, it’s ready for harvesting. Specialists take the algae to a processing facility in the building to harvest and ferment it. The end result is biogas that building occupants may burn for heat during the winter.
Sunny weather encourages algae growth. The warmth the algae-filled cases on the BIQ House absorb is transferred to the building’s saline water tanks for future use. The algae façade also keeps the building naturally cooler.
Challenges of Living-Algae Building Materials
One of the biggest challenges associated with using algae for building materials is tradition. Engineers design or treat building materials to prevent the growth of plant life or the effects of water intrusion. Water can degrade or corrode building materials. Plants growing on building materials trap water. Engineers would have to create materials that can withstand the nutrient-rich water given to algae.
Excessive heat is another concern. Algae do not survive overly-warm temperatures well. Some bloom in warmer conditions. These pose challenges in regard to constructing BIQ buildings in areas with warm climates. A solution experts are toying with is the use of temperature- and heat-resistant glass, which could also give glass cases added strength and prevent damage.
In regard to power generation, one alga cell only produces about one picoampere. Generating voltage that equals the output of an AA battery requires about one trillion cells. After about an hour, the cells die, halting energy production. Scientists believe this occurs because the cells don’t receive enough electrons to complete processes like Kreb’s Cycles or glycolysis, which is required to produce ATP, or adenosine triphosphates. Without enough ATP, algae cells do not receive enough energy to survive.
Inserting electrons into cells also takes time. Solutions include using algae species with larger chloroplasts because of their bigger collecting area and improving the quality of electrodes to tap into more electrons.
The use of algae also poses interesting challenges in the Oregon demolition industry. Before construction begins, specialists must take into account the lifecycle costs of using algae for biofuels and energy, including design, construction, installation, operation, demolition and disposal. Later on, a demolition company will be faced with how to salvage and reuse, sell or donate the green building material.
Our Portland demolition contractors advise that any materials used in the construction of buildings should be cost-effective, long-lasting and versatile. Despite the challenges it poses, the use of algae as a building material may be a prime solution to the energy-related difficulties the Earth faces. As scientist test algae species in different conditions and develop farming practices, the natural resource continues to hold great promise.