I just saw Greg Mitchell from the Scripps Institute give a seminar on the potential of algae as a biofuel. I am super excited. I really have not been a believer in (terrestrial crop) biofuels, because they seem like a really inefficient way to get energy, that also require further destruction of natural areas and that could drive up the price of food. According to this guy, algae could produce 100s of times more energy per acre than other crops like corn or switchgrass, both in the form of ethanol and biodiesel, such that you could fuel all of the cars in the US with an area of land that is tiny compared to the area in the US that is currently devoted to agriculture. And there is protein left over from the processing that could be fed to livestock, further decreasing the pressures on agricultural land. And, on the global warming front, since algae take their CO2 out of water rather than out of the air, industrially-produced CO2 could be fed directly back to the algae instead of being released into the atmosphere or stored in some expensive way. Algae farms, such as Earthrise and Cyanotech, already exist, mostly for the nutraceutical industry, but this could be scaled up for biofuel.
This is a very new field, with a need for genetic engineering. Hello, post-doc. Even though I'm not doing any functional genetics right now, I have enough background in it that I think I would not have a problem switching over after I got my Ph.D. What I'm doing right now, studying organisms in natural areas, has implications for conservation and management, but there is very little direct economic benefit from it, and so there is not a lot of money to fund it. Agriculture and biofuels to me are like nature made unnatural, and do not have as much gut appeal to me as traipsing about in the woods for my research, but they might have a much bigger impact on the future of our environment.
I do think that people in the first world need to consume a lot less. I have this dream of living in a house with solar panels that both power the house and charge the battery for my car. But I also have a dream of living in New England, where there is not a lot of sunlight. Let's cross our fingers about the algae.