Ted Simons: Algae is often considered a nuisance growing in fish tanks or even worse in swimming pools, but algae holds a lot of promise as a source of medicine, food, and fuel. In his book "Green Algae Strategy," A.S.U. professor Mark Edwards explores the potential benefits of algae. The book was recently selected by independent publishers as the top science book of 2009. In the book Edwards takes a look at algae research, including some taking place right here at A.S.U.
Mark Edwards: My research career has been mostly spent looking for this opportunity to exploit the algae in a way that will solve some of our problems.
Announcer: For the past two decades the researchers have continued the research for new varieties of algae that are well suited to the production of fuels as well as other uses. These efforts have resulted in the creation of the laboratory for algae research and biotechnology at A.S.U.'s polytechnic campus. Here Summerfeld and his colleagues work on developing improved methods for growing algae in specialized tanks or bio reactors.
Mark Edwards: The effort now is trying to in a sense domesticate these algae, so that we can grow them and engineered devices to produce high density culture that we can harvest and that we can ultimately extract the oil from and process to make a variety of biofuels and putting biodiesel jet fuel as well as gasoline.
Ted Simons: Joining me now is the author of "Green Algae Strategy," professor Mark Edwards of Morrison School of Management and Agri-business at A.S.U., thanks for joining us.
Mark Edwards: Thank you, Ted.
Ted Simons: Talking about A.S.U. and algae as fuel, I want to get to that. But I want to start with the idea of algae as food. Where are we with this, talk to us about this.
Mark Edwards: Algae is the oldest food on earth. Humans have eaten algae since the beginning of humans. And anyone near a lake or ocean, all of our ancestors either ate algae directly, fed it to their animals, many times used it as fertilizer as well.
Ted Simons: Ok. To modern times, is the idea that -- I'm a little bit of research here is a terrible thing, but the idea of processing the stuff into flour, is that the idea?
Mark Edwards: There are many ways. Many times we just harvest -- this is seaweed, which is macroalgae, and this is a product that we sell 6 billion tons of this every year. So throughout Asia, especially China, throughout the Pacific Rim, algae's a very common part of the diet. And it's very healthy, high protein, great nutrients, wonderful vitamins.
Ted Simons: So instead of corn, wheat, soybean, you can get algae to do the same thing?
Mark Edwards: Corn, wheat, soybean, all evolved from algae. Green algae was the original plant on earth. Green algae saved the planet by transforming our atmosphere from carbon dioxide to O.2, and that's in everything evolved from algae. All the plants.
Ted Simons: Ok. Let's get to how you harvest algae. I mean, algae most folks think of something you don't want to deal with. How do you plant and harvest algae without damaging water supplies?
Mark Edwards: Ok, I brought a little demo here. This is my little --
Ted Simons: Hold it right in front of you there, there you go.
Mark Edwards: There we go.
Ted Simons: Hold it right there.
Mark Edwards: Ok, all right. So we have two actually three inputs, carbon dioxide and nutrients, nutrients we get from waste water so we're recycling waste and then of course we have solar energy. So what algae is is truly is green solar energy, and Arizona is positioned to be the green solar capital of the world because we are blessed with the most solar energy of any state in the union. So this is green solar energy, all we're doing is capturing that solar energy in green plant bonds, it's stored and it's portable and then we can harvest it as a fuel, as a food, and the highest value is for medicines.
Ted Simons: So food, fuel, now medicine as well.
Mark Edwards: Medicine as well. In fact, many people take fish oil and they think it comes from fish, no, it doesn't come from fish. It comes from algae. Because where do you suppose fish get their fish oil? From algae. So producers in Israel produce the algae, squeeze the oil, and that's where we get our Omega-3’s and fish oil. It's straight from the algae and doesn't build up the mercury you get from fish.
Ted Simons: Ok, so we're talking water based farms here, how big do these farms have to be? Where do they have to be, anywhere?
Mark Edwards: They can be anywhere, but ideally you take non-cropland, so you're not competing with food crops, you take waste water or we are blessed in Arizona with something I didn't know about before this research, we are -- we have the most brine water of any state in the union. So under our deserts are oceans of brine water and guess what happens when you bring salty water, brine water, to analogy pond? It cleans the water. So you've taken non-potable water and made it clean. In Israel, 87#% of their municipal water is cleared by algae.
Ted Simons: Ok. Let's talk about harvesting the stuff even more here.
Mark Edwards: Ok.
Ted Simons: How fast does it grow, how fast do you harvest it, and compare it to plants that were more familiar with.
Mark Edwards: Ok. Think of analogy as a single celled organism like this, just a million times smaller of course. What they do is they clump and grow -- they grow together. But one single celled algae cell can multiply itself a million times a day. That means in our as we grow the product in the growing system, the culture, this is the first free lunch because you can – it can double its whole biomass by 11:00 in the morning. That means we typically harvest about half the biomass every day. Then when you compare that to soy or corn, the numbers come out to 50 to 100 times more productive per acre per year.
Ted Simons: All right. Let's move to fuel now because I know A.S.U. is very much involved in the fuel aspect. How much involved, by the way?
Mark Edwards: Oh, A.S.U. is a world leader in food, the lab and bio design who you saw the Summerfeld in the intro, their labs are both working in different models for bio-fuels and actually theirs is the highest value because they're going for jet fuel, which is the highest energy fuel. And with algae because it grows so fast, you can harvest a tremendous amount of algae and recover, generally it's through extraction, pressing, but Bruce Rittman, Professor Rittman's work, their algae is actually secreting the oil, so it floats to the top, they skim it off.
Ted Simons: So we’re talking diesel here as far as fuel is concerned?
Mark Edwards: We can talk diesel, gasoline, jet fuel. Depends on the length of your carbon complain.
Ted Simons: Talk about emissions, something's got to be burning.
Mark Edwards: Great question, I love this question, because algae burns clean. Algae is a vegetable oil. So it doesn't have any black soot particulates, reason? It wasn't fossilized. All of our fossil fuels, if you look at the D.N.A., are algae from ancient oceans. So the algae was fossilized over 400 million years, and all we're doing here at A.S.U. is we're taking the 400 million years and compressing it into about four weeks, and we can produce oil.
Ted Simons: We got about 30 seconds left. Smells like French fries.
Mark Edwards: Yes, indeed.
Ted Simons: 30 seconds left. How soon before all of this becomes, I mean, a reality. I mean, more than just we're talking about it but, you're actually smelling French fries on the road outside.
Mark Edwards: We're producing it right now and we'll be producing it to scale in the next two to three years, and scale means large, large scale. So it's a fabulous potential for food, for medicines, and Arizona can be the green solar capital of the world because we have just exactly what's needed here.
Ted Simons: All right. Well, it's fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for joining us, we appreciate it.
Mark Edwards: Pleasure, Ted. Thank you.