Fossil Fuels infiltrate our lives, and we need to replace them with sustainable alternatives everywhere.
“All will be one will be one this year
wings and ice will be one in the world
all will be changed in the world”,
writes the Danish poet Inger Christensen in her poem Winter. The poem bears the markings of the all-consuming cold that the Scandinavian peoples have come to know in their bones since they first settled in the region approximately 10,000 years ago. Christensen’s words, “all will be changed,” echo the tremendous geological changes that were unfolding in Northern Europe at this very time of the first settlers, even though the poem doesn’t concern this particular historical era.
Some 4,000 years before the first Nordic inhabitants, the last Ice Age on Earth, held the same landscape in its tight grip. The Scandinavian ice sheet covered the entire region, and a blinding white uninhabited landscape would meet the eye. But all changed when the Earth’s axis shifted: the long Scandinavian summers of light set in, gradually melting the ice sheet and propelling the climate into a warmer interglacial state.
Over thousands of years, this shift caused a retreat of the ice towards the Arctic and resulted in glacial meltwater that dramatically altered the white landscape. The region underwent several changes in name and appearance, from the Baltic Ice Lake to the Yoldia Sea covering what we today know as Norway, Sweden and Finland. With the retreating ice gradually shrinking to the Ancylus Lake, to the Mastogloria Sea, to the Littorina Sea, until 4,000 years ago it became, in name and relative appearance, what we now know as the Baltic Sea.
The geological changes made the land more inhabitable, and more people immigrated and settled around islands and mainland. This sea links the Scandinavian regions and peoples to Poland, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. The semi enclosure of the Baltic also makes it one of the most brackish bodies of water in the world, as it receives water from the Atlantic Ocean and the many rivers that run into it — for instance, the Vistula, Poland’s longest river. As a result, it is a sea that scientists and researchers extensively studied, as its unique geology provides an ecosystem that responds quickly to external influences.
What might it tell us now about all these external influences propelled by modern-day living, after its many years and changes? What does the water say about the time in which it and we exist — and do Inger Christensen’s words that “all will be changed” still echo the life of this body of water?
If we zoomed out on the Baltic, we would see an area transformed from blind white to blue, covering about 386,000 km² (149,000 mi²). Yet examining this living body that connects the shores of countries and their peoples more closely, we would also take in the sight of intense blue green in an area covering approximately 70,000 km² (27,027 mi²) — almost 1/5th of the entire Baltic. It is, in fact, so large that we can spot it from outer space, and the blue green identifies an area that is effectively a “dead zone”. (1)
The “dead zone” seems an unexpected name for an area bearing the colors most often associated with natural growth. They indicate a particular development in the water, more specifically that of algae. In Chapter Two, we examined the impact that algae bacteria had on the Earth two billion years ago. Much like the first time it happened, change also came in the form of these blue-green algae. In chapter two, we referred to these algae as cyanobacteria. The microscopic life forms that, began the process that irreversibly changed the course of Earth’s life. Their dramatic impact, we may recall, occurred as they transformed the entire composition of Earth’s atmosphere. By obtaining energy through oxygenic photosynthesis, releasing the highly consequential by-product of Oxygen.
In the case of the Baltic, however, the algal growth has a different outcome on life forms and oxygen content in water. Algal bloom covers approximately 70,000 km² (27,027 mi²). An algal bloom is a rapid increase of algae in the water, and this phenomenon has a profound impact on ecosystems. Like the first cyanobacteria on Earth, those billions of years ago, the Baltic algae “feed” from CO₂ in the water and release the by-product of Oxygen. This Oxygen is, under normal circumstances, a great source of life for other life forms in the ocean. Cyanobacteria and other algae forms are responsible for approximately half of all the Oxygen in our oceans and the atmosphere. So, algae are generally a great source of life.
However, as is the case in the Baltic, algae can also spell the death of other life forms. Under certain conditions, the “bloom” phenomenon can reach an immense exponential growth and spread rapidly. And as quickly as the algae grow, as short-lived, it is too. This growth and death results, under specific conditions, in a massive increase of algae followed by a significant concentration of dead organic matter, which begins to decompose. And in this cycle of growth and decomposition lies the problem.
The very decomposition process of the dead algae consumes a vast amount of Oxygen — which results in a substantial decrease in available Oxygen for other life in the water. The lack of Oxygen means that plants and animals in the algal bloom zones begin to die off — the area thus evolving into the “dead zone” that we see in the Baltic. (3)
Compounding the problem is the daily cycle of algal bloom in which it produces Oxygen in daylight and consumes Oxygen in the dark. However, in some conditions, the Oxygen production by algal bloom is decreased without a corresponding reduction in its nighttime oxygen consumption. This imbalance, caused by bacteria decomposing dead algae, results in the bloom dying back temporarily. This bacterial decomposition, alongside the loss of average oxygen production, will lead to oxygen depletion and the death of cohabiting animals and plants.
So, the vast exponential growth witnessed in blue-green algae or cyanobacteria illustrates how an algal mass, under specific conditions, can spread at a tremendous rate, then die off and cause severe oxygen depletion and consequent dead zones in the water.
And what then are these specific conditions that cause the algal bloom? To understand it, we come back to the reason why the Baltic Sea is brackish. Its unique composition of saltwater from the Atlantic and fresh water from large rivers such as the Vistula. The main water artery of Poland, the Vistula, runs through most of the country and is fed by hundreds of small waterways until it reaches the sea. These waterways run through farming land, and as part of the modern farming practice we have implemented across the world to feed our growing population, this land receives a lot of fertilizer. In the form of nitrate, the excess fertilizer from the ground leaches from the soil of nearby farms into the waterways, then into the large tributary rivers, which carry the nitrate through the land to the river’s mouth into the sea. And it is in this meeting between nitrate and algae, when Poland’s large artery bleeds toxins into the water, that “all will be changed” for the Baltic Ocean. (4)
Why is this? While the process of photosynthesis sustains cyanobacteria, they also require nutrients for growth and reproduction. One of the primary nutrients is nitrate — the same nutrient present in agricultural run-off. The higher the quantity of the nutrients, the more rapid the growth of the algae. Countries like Poland have an economic emphasis on farming. Fertilizers link directly to agricultural production levels, so overfertilization is a recurring problem. Based on the financial dependence on agriculture, one can understand how agricultural run-off is a persistent and deep-seethed problem. Not only for the biggest Baltic polluter such as Poland — which is the fifth-biggest recipient of European subsidy money — but for most European countries — and particularly the most EU-subsidized of them.
In fact, according to the European Environment Agency, it may take nearly 200 years before parts of the Baltic Sea are restored to health again. In the meantime, the rivers run through the land, bringing nutrients into the ocean, the algae blooms, dies off, decomposes, and dead zones spread throughout the Baltic.
But may there lie some potential in this — may we be able to harvest new opportunity from this devastation by harvesting, in the most literal sense? What if we farmed the algae — harvesting it before it died off, decomposed, and depleted the water of Oxygen? Would we then not see the algae performing a significant consumption of CO₂ and, alongside this, aiding the recovery of the Baltic Ocean? And the harvested algae itself — could a new and more CO₂-friendly future perhaps bloom from this crop?
CO₂ and biofuels
We will return to these specific questions later, particularly algae as a potential replacement for fossil fuels. It is imperative to consider all alternatives to fossil fuels amid our rising CO₂ crises. For now, let us once again familiarize ourselves with the crux of the problem itself. We know from previous chapters that the pre-industrial CO₂ levels were around 280 ppm and that we hover around 420 ppm at present. And we know that CO₂ levels are increasing due to the burning of fossil fuels.
To contextualize this, let’s just come back to the determining factors of CO₂ levels. The current rise in CO₂ results from an imbalance between carbon sequestration and carbon emissions. Carbon sequestration being the term used for the carbon buried in sediments and captured by plants, and carbon emissions the term used for the material we burn to fuel our lifestyle. Much discussion focuses on renewable energy, and in principle, fossil fuels are also renewable, but they are the product of millions of years of decomposition. When we engage in the foul business, in the most literal of senses, of digging fossil fuel from the ground and burning it off, we are burning off, in a matter of years, the CO₂ that was absorbed, more than 20 million years ago. This burning of carbon absorbed over millions of years propels the steep rise in CO₂ which we are currently witnessing. (5)
In other words, until we find a solution to our energy consumption through fusion power, we need to change the source of the energy that we burn, to maintain a balance between our carbon sequestration and our carbon emissions. Therefore, it may be helpful to examine these different sources of energy and their impact on sequestration and emission.
Firstly, we know that creating fossil fuels takes millions of years. When we burn them, we also burn the CO₂ absorbed over the course of millions of years. This process creates a massive imbalance in the CO₂ system. Next, the trees take decades to grow, and in the meantime absorbing CO₂ for decades. When we burn them, we release the CO₂ absorbed over decades. Perennial plants — such as corn, sunflowers, and wheat, take up to a year to grow and, over this year, they will absorb CO₂, which we again release when we burn these plants and crops for energy. Now, suppose we refocus on the algae that we have witnessed spreading across the Baltic Sea. In that case, we now know that its exponential growth means that it takes only days to grow, and that burning these algae for fuel would be to burn CO₂ absorbed only a few days ago. Thereby we will be maintaining a relative balance between the CO₂ system of sequestration and emission.
If we were to burn today what was absorbed yesterday, we would keep a steady fluctuation in our CO₂ levels, rather than emitting CO₂ absorbed over millions of years — CO₂, which will also take millions of years to reabsorb. Therefore, when concerning ourselves with the burning of CO₂ until a CO₂-free solution is possible, understanding a timeline for such CO₂ emitting fuels is crucial. Sure enough, we still burn off CO₂ with algae. Still, biofuel will prevent the enormous fluctuations, which we are witnessing today and instead promote a small ripple effect of emission of CO₂ today from CO₂ sequestered yesterday.
This “equation” can fundamentally change our perspective on the algal bloom problem in the Baltic, pointing us to an area that could symbolize a new kind of future in our CO₂ consumption. A perspective that may view the Baltic as a great source of potential rather than one of great devastation. The dead zones contain a significant and untapped source of biomass. And this different perspective in the ongoing discussion on biofuel is everything.
Biofuel, pros, and cons
One of the main arguments against replacing fossil fuel with biofuel is the increasing need for using landmass for growing the crops. There are deep concerns that this requirement of land for fuel production will decrease the available farming land. Reducing the usable farmland will negatively affect food production during a growing food crisis where a child dies every 10 seconds of hunger. This concern goes hand in hand with worries that more use of farmland for biofuel will, drive food prices up and exacerbating the current lack of food in some parts of the world.
Others argue that biofuel will have a detrimental effect on the environment, decreasing biodiversity as the production of biofuel crops takes an increasing amount of land. The use of fertilizer for these crops will further harm land and species. — It will also release poisonous and highly reactive Nitrogen Oxide gases that cause environmental disasters in the form of smog, acid rain, and damaging the ozone layer. A point also made, is that while biofuel does release lower emissions, the complete life cycle of this energy source counts for higher emissions of greenhouse gases in the various stages of production. Mainly the production of the fertilizers and pesticides required for the crop, the fuel used in farming it, and the processing, transport, and distribution negatively impact emissions. Finally, further counterarguments to biofuel are its lower energy density and how this makes a switch from fossil fuel comparatively less energy efficient.
The one certainty to take from the complex fuel-dependent world we have created in modern time, is that nothing is black or white when discussing energy supplies and demands. Biofuel is certainly not the perfect solution to the intricate web that is our energy problems. But let’s examine the concerns held by biofuel skeptics and how they relate to the production and use of fuel from algae.
The food crisis certainly gives weight to the overall picture that we must consider regarding the positive benefits of biofuel on humanity. However, let’s not place all fuel crops in the same basket. Because the reality we are entertaining when discussing algae as a replacement to fossil fuel is an entirely different use of the planet’s resources to those needed for farming. Algae grow in water, so what would be the point of moving production to land and taking up much-needed farming areas? Using the natural element of algae, namely water, we avoid reducing available landmass earmarked for farming, reducing food production, thus driving up food prices. We also avoid taking up areas of conservation and biodiversity.
The emission of Nitrogen Oxides, or NOx gases, is a crucial issue, one we must not disregard. Burning biofuel will still generate NOx, a climate gas that also is a carcinogen. The side effects of biofuel show that biofuel is not the long-term solution and that we are dealing with a complex picture. However, the ethanol or methanol gained from algae as fuel has a lower nitrogen oxide content than many other crops when burned. We can use these types of biofuels in a fuel cell, which avoids the direct burn-off that causes the release of the NOx gases, thereby altogether eliminating this counterargument.
Furthermore, in a study released by the U.S. Department of Energy, which compares greenhouse gas emissions between fossil fuels and biofuel, today’s standard biofuel crop in the form of corn ethanol releases between 19% to 52% fewer greenhouse gases, dependent on its production method, compared to fossil fuels. However, cellulosic biomass — or more specifically, the ethanol fuel produced from the cellulose of, for example, algae- reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 86% (6). The same report also concludes that ethanol blends in use today, have little impact on fuel economy or vehicle performance. And while ethanol does have a slightly lower energy density than diesel — about 12 percent — it is vastly superior to, for instance, the battery-operated cars we see today. Furthermore, if produced from cellulosic biomass like algae, its emissions would be much lower than the diesel fuel running most cars today.
As for algae-based biofuel production, looking at the Baltic Sea, we see a massive amount of biomass produced by nitrogen from agricultural run-off. There are other areas around the world where similar algae blooms occur, and the fertilizer is already in place to drive the fast growth of the algae in these areas. This fertilizer is used to optimize crop production to feed our growing population. The excess fertilizer, we know, runs into the water, causing algae to grow and then die off. Suppose we were to harvest this biomass where the river meets the sea. If we were to farm the algae in the water more efficiently like crops and then harvest it, we would achieve multiple goals, cleaning the Baltic Ocean, gaining biomass, and producing biofuel.
And is this fuel then a realistic interim solution — can it meet the requirements which a viable alternative must meet? Some arguments against biofuel include the fact that bioethanol would require modifications to many vehicles. The switch to this type of fuel requires significant infrastructure changes to provide ethanol refueling stations. But we have been at this crossroads before, remember? When unleaded gasoline replaced leaded fuel, the entire fuel industry and the car manufacturing industry made the necessary adjustments required for this significant switch.
A switch to biodiesel is undoubtedly possible. Across the world, people are producing their biofuel, and using this for car models with the so-called B100 engines. Manufacturing of cars with these types of motors has stopped. However, older vehicles with these engine models can still run on biofuel, bearing evidence of the possibility of car fleets running on biofuel in the future. This switch will require straightforward engineering solutions to make the necessary adjustments to these fleets (7)(8).
Similarly, there are pitfalls of biodiesel in current car engines. There is a concern that ethanol being hygroscopic — a tendency to absorb moisture — will cause damage to car engines. Water in engines is never a good thing, and skeptics use this, as an argument against biofuel. But again, these problems are undoubtedly solvable with the application of skilled engineers and proper project management. It is, after all, not rocket science, though, as we know from our previous chapter, even rocket science is solvable with the right team behind it.
If we did implement the changes, made the adjustments, and invested in this new future, would we then be able to supply the required fuel? The main argument against biofuel is that it is an unrealistic venture because supply wouldn’t meet demand. But again, the skepticism is founded on biomass grown on land. With the cellulosic biofuel produced from algae, we don’t concern ourselves with crops grown in fields and the take-over of farmland used for food production. We are looking at an entirely different territory: water, as seen in the Baltic, where nutrients from agricultural run-off are already producing biomass large enough to be seen from space.
This beneficial use of waste products also echoes in a recent report by the U.S. Government Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. It highlights the benefits found in biomass produced from waste streams. It suggests a ‘huge potential of agricultural and forestry wastes, which can be harvested sustainably without disrupting natural ecosystem function or soil fertility. The Office also highlights the biomass potential that lies in waste streams such as ‘sewage sludge’.
Fossil fuels infiltrate our lives
And there is indeed a vast potential that we must explore as a long-term replacement for fossil fuels. Biofuel should only serve as an interim solution to produce energy until we arrive at the point in time when fusion power can deliver CO₂-free energy. However, we still need to replace all the other areas in our daily lives where fossil fuel is a dominant ingredient. We may think we have a reasonably good grasp of the uses of fossil fuel and the part it plays in our daily lives. Still, many of us are entirely unaware of how fossil fuels infiltrate our daily lives. Besides fuel, asphalt, petroleum jelly, and plastic, fossil fuels are components in and supplement the production of a diverse list of items: computers, detergents, furniture, packaging materials, paints, upholstery, carpets, insecticides, nail polish, perfume, antiseptics, food preservatives, soap, anesthetics, face creams, toothpaste, refrigerators, medicines, heart valves, and shampoo. And these are but a few on the long list of products currently dependent on fossil fuels. (9)
But fossil fuel is by definition only biomass –- although a highly polluting and problematic kind — and so we can, in turn, replace it with alternative biomass like blue-green algae. All the many products and their uses in the above list are here to stay — items that will still be as important and needed by the time we have hopefully phased out fossil fuel. The need for a replacement means that the investment in biomass, therefore, isn’t short-term. While we will find a long-term energy replacement for fossil fuel, we will still need a biomass replacement to cover the many threads that make up the intricate web currently weaved with the help of fossil fuel.
And algae can facilitate such a replacement — both the short-term of fuel and the long-term of daily products. It can address the concerns of the skeptics and, if farmed correctly, it can supply the demand. The figure below illustrates the growth of algae cultures. It gives us insight into the growth path of these microscopic plants, beginning with a lag phase, then continuing with an exponential phase, a declining phase, and finally a stationary phase, followed by decline and death. (10)
If we harvest the algae at precisely the right time before the decline and death that we witness in the Baltic, then we have before us a crop that requires very little landmass and can produce biomass of mind-boggling quantities over a short time frame. This mind-boggling result will be a process of growth optimization, harvesting, and processing at refineries. And we can carry out the entire cycle of this in one place so long as a refinery is situated close to water.
In an article, The American Scientist magazine promotes the advantages of algae in its ‘high per-acre productivity’ and the benefits of its water-based cultivation, ensuring its unlikeliness “to interfere with food production at the levels that cultivation of other feedstocks, such as corn, might.” (11)
There are, of course, steps to go through, such as identifying the most high-productivity algal strains and developing the best and most reliable algae-farming methods. In other words, innovating a carefully engineered cultivation process and finally overcoming the commercialization hurdles of efficiency and grams per liter of biomass. But we are, as examined in previous chapters, a species that defined ourselves as Sapiens, a “wise” man, the day we picked up a stone to use as a tool. And the aforementioned technical hurdles have mostly already been solved in laboratories or pilot facilities.
The final and highly determining factor, though, is the economy of such farming. But the American Scientist identifies that with improvements to lipid content and growth rate of algae, alongside some other parameters, the potential for cost reduction in algae farming is significant and one we indeed can develop and refine over time. After all, we picked up the tool. We came to change the Earth and its atmosphere beyond recognition through the very process of farming and consequent industrialization, so the route of algae farming is but another frontier for us to cross.
Coming back to the American Scientist one final time, the magazine further points to the potential for production to be a worldwide venture. Algae grow “in many different environments, and we can farm them in multiple types of water: fresh, brackish, saline and wastewater”.
The different environments bring us back to the complete cycle of algae biofuel and the defining role of refineries. If we survey a map of the positioning of refineries worldwide, we see that most refineries are close to a coast. We can see this ironically from a map showing the emissions of these refineries (12). The positive consequence of this is that almost no transport is required to produce refined biomaterial, and it is feasible to pump the harvested algae to nearby refineries. Furthermore, onward transport is not a problem due to the current existing logistics for fossil fuels. Therefore, refined biofuel will use an already existing infrastructure, again reducing costs significantly. And we know from Chapter Seven and the leaded fuel phase-out that we can implement change with an already existing infrastructure in place. Transition and change are possible, providing the investment and the political will are there.
And the role that politics play in this narrative of the tiny one-celled organisms with great potential is virtually impossible to underestimate. But perhaps it would prove wise to bring the question of algae back to the politicians and the political structures in the place where we began our story — by the Baltic Ocean and the dead zones almost exclusively within the waters of The European Union. As our narrative builds, gas runs in great pipelines below the E.U. territories. While each paragraph unfolds, so do the dead zones created by an algal bloom, which paradoxically also symbolizes an untapped biomass resource creating these very zones. In turn, primarily E.U. countries’ over-fertilizing with E.U. subsidies create these dead zones.
Suppose the E.U. wishes to be the great climate mover and shaker they pledge to be. Why then continue to import gas when they can solve two problems, reducing CO₂ emissions by harvesting what is already in their waters and cleaning up the Baltic Ocean.
Any nation or union moving into the farming of cellulosic biomass would conquer a new frontier. Conquering the frontier of energy and biomass for replacing fossil fuels would spell a significant transition. This transition could be the next big investment opportunity, meaning that ‘all will be changed in the world’.
This is the ninth chapter of my book “Atmosphere, CO₂ on my mind”. You can find more information and references on my website.
You can continue by reading the next chapter (Us vs Them, we can not fight climate change with this mindset) here.
- Credit: ESA, Envisat image of a phytoplankton bloom in the Baltic Sea, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
- Daniel H. Rothman, “Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the last 500 million years”
- https://research.csiro.au/anaccmethods/phycological- techniques/biomass-estimation/algal-growth-phases-including-determination-of-the-growth-rate-and-population-doubling-time/