An article published online, March 2 2011, described the research of an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, Jamie Hestekin, and his team, which includes both undergraduate and graduate level students. These chemical engineers have created a way to turn algae into Butanol, a renewable resource that can be used in motor-vehicles. Unlike ethanol, Butanol can be transported in pipelines originally set up for fossil fuels. Additionally, Butanol produces more energy for its mass than ethanol, which allows it to be mixed into gasoline in greater concentrations and, because algae can be grown anywhere, valuable crop land need not wasted to produce it.
As if Butanol needed another advantage, it can also be used to clean polluted rivers and streams because the algae chemicals like phosphorus, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. This means that when the “raceways” (the net or carpet used to grow the algae) are placed in what some have termed “dead zones” (areas of water that have so much phosphors and nitrogen that plants and fish cannot survive) the algae actually purifies the water, allowing plant and animal life to return. One potential problem not discussed directly in the original article is that most river and stream ecosystems do not have an over abundance of phosphorous and nitrogen so that the addition of large patches artificially introduced algae could have a negative impact on the environment. However, this question was indirectly addressed by saying that growth is encouraged by adding large amounts of carbon dioxide to the algae. Presumably, phosphorous and nitrogen could also be added if the environment needed it.
Although not fully practicable yet, butanol certainly seems to have a lot of potential for the future, though whether we will still need combustible fuels in the next twenty years (given the advances in electric cars) remains to be seen.