SOAR: A New Algae Solution
by Dr. Mark Edwards
he SOAR project, Save Our (children’s) Agricultural Resources, holds promise to yield six times the energy derived from the nine billion gallons of corn ethanol produced annually. SOAR may also deliver 36 billion gallons of diesel without even producing a drop of algae transportation fuel, through direct efficiencies. SOAR offers a broad spectrum of additional health, social, economic and environmental benefits that are several times the value of the fuel delivered.
Corn ethanol will leave a disastrous legacy for our children. They will find their natural resources extinct and unavailable. The ethanol program will leave their ecosystems severely eroded, degraded and polluted—useless for food or biofuel production. How will our children produce food and other forms of energy?
Public debate continues on the potential for algae to produce liquid transportation fuels, (LTF) with minimal natural resource consumption and practically no pollution. We have seen no debate on the SOAR project because this is the first public proposal. SOAR does not rely on algae biofuels production but can make the production of corn ethanol unnecessary. Biodiesel production with algae biofuels provides a means for analyzing savings from eliminating corn ethanol production.
Algae biofuels can provide far more LTF with substantially less economic, environmental and social cost than corn ethanol. A green algae strategy that uses zero cropland acres to produce algae biofuels could replace the consumptive corn ethanol production, while creating an annual savings of:
- 40 million prime cropland acres currently used to grow the corn feedstock.
- Two trillion gallons of freshwater used to grow the feedstock.
- Five billion gallons of fossil diesel fuel for cultivation and harvest.
- Over 9 billion pounds of chemical fertilizers that supply nutrients.
- Over two million of pounds of agricultural chemicals and poisons.
- Over 240 million tons of eroded soil – 6 tons per corn acre.
- Over 90 million tons of CO2 air pollution, plus nitric oxides.
- Reduction of dead zones in our lakes, estuaries and oceans by 50% from nutrient runoff.
The 100 tons of corn used for ethanol production annually consume our children’s non-renewable resources, pollute air, soils and groundwater and create health problems for people and animals. The consumption of food crops for biofuels drives up the cost of commodities and all the inputs to food production. The $20 billion in subsidies to produce ethanol replace less than 3% of U.S. oil imports. The drill-down for these savings are available in BioWar I: Why Battles over Food and Fuel Lead to World Hunger by Mark Edwards. BioWar I is available free, in color PDF download, at www.AlgaeCompetition.com or for purchase on Amazon.com and other retailers.
SOAR saves these precious resources for our children, while yielding six times more transportation fuel than the entire ethanol program. SOAR is part of a broader strategy that transforms our food supply, eliminates the need to produce corn ethanol, and significantly reduces food and energy transportation costs and pollution. This new abundance production method grows good food and:
- Provides superior nutrition and taste with substantially less pollution and waste.
- Creates thousands of sustainable green jobs that provide a living wage.
- Cures rather than causes obesity, diabetes, and other Western diseases.
- Is naturally biodiverse, avoiding the need for genetic engineering.
- Minimizes or eliminates extraction and waste of fossil resources.
- Regenerates rather than pollutes ecosystems.
- Preserves natural resources for future generations.
The SOAR strategy transforms 50% of our food supply from genetically engineered monocultures grown distant to consumers to naturally biodiverse foods grown within 50 miles of consumers.
Local food production requires a food supply that not only avoids extraction and consumption of fossil resources but also is weather, climate and geography independent. Our modern fossil foods are weather intolerant and require massive tracts of relatively flat, fertile cropland with access to over a million gallons of freshwater per acre. Those parameters do not exist within 50 miles of population centers. Local food production requires distributed growers in and around cities.
Vertical farms growing organic produce within cities may provide some local food production but are not a full solution. Vertical farms are essentially stacked greenhouses that use artificial light. Architectural firms have designed a variety of vertical farms but no real production systems yet exist. The idea traces back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built around 600BC.
The capital and operating costs of vertical farms make them problematic. Growing modern industrial foods in vertical farms probably nets more fossil resource consumption than field crops. Vertical farms do minimize transportation costs and pollution. Vertical farms could also house abundance microfarms scaled to the building.
Abundance microfarms, also called freedom microfarms in a prior post, give growers the freedom to produce good food nearly anywhere. Microfarmers mimic nature and use the oldest, simplest, yet most efficient growing system on Earth – photosynthetic microorganisms called algae. Growers practice abundant agriculture as they use no or minimal non-renewable inputs. Growers recycle energy and nutrients from farm, garden or municipal organic waste streams rather than using fossil inputs.
Microfarmers cultivate communities of algae and other microorganisms that they train to produce proteins, oils, carbohydrates and other valuable coproducts rapidly. Microfarms grow food, nutrients, feed, fodder, fertilizer, biofuels, nutraceuticals, medicines and advanced compounds in cultivated algae production systems, (CAPS) scaled to any size. A microfarm may serve a family or community and operate in a backyard, rooftop, balcony, vacant lot, barn, barren field or on other non-crop land.
Microfarms are geography and weather independent and grow colorful and tasty foods with superior nutritional profiles 70 times faster than modern agriculture. Growers experience little yield risk because they harvest half of the biomass each day. Culture growth slows or halts during cloudy or stormy days but begins again when the sun reappears. In geographies with little sun or long winters, grow lights can provide the photons for photosynthesis. Other growers may produce algae biomass in closed containers and feed the algae sugar instead of solar energy.
Microfarms are non-pollutive and can regenerate degraded air, water and soil. Algae use solar energy efficiently to transform wastewater, surplus CO2 and possibly some additional nutrients into a green biomass rich in lipids, sugars, proteins, carbohydrates and other valuable organic compounds. Algae convert inorganic substances such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, iron and trace elements into organic matter such as green, blue-green, red, brown or other color biomass.
The US Department of Transportation reported LTF consumption in 2010 was 18.7 million barrels per day, or 287 billion gallons per year. Growing, harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting food consumes about 25% of LTF, or about 72 billion gallons. The SOAR model suggests that 50% of food grow locally, with renewable energy. SOAR eliminates half the food cultivation and transportation costs, which saves 36 billion gallons annually.
Corn ethanol holds only 64% of the energy of gasoline. Therefore, the 2009 production of 9 billion gallons yields 5.7 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent energy. Adopting the SOAR model where half the food grows locally would save 6.3 times more liquid transportation fuels than produced by 40 million acres of corn for ethanol.
Taking half of the food trucks off the road will save thousands of lives. Big trucks are involved in crashes that result in 5000 fatalities and 130,000 injuries a year. Trucks clog city streets and create smog and black smoke particulate pollution that causes respiratory diseases for millions of people. The American Lung Association and the EPA estimate that black smoke pollution causes more than 4,700 premature deaths annually in just nine major American cities.
Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg of WorldWatch Institute wrote an excellent chapter in State of the World 2007 called Farming Cities. They note that despite all that farming can do for the city landscape and the urban soul, politicians and planners continue to regard food as a rural issue. They make strong arguments for the nutritional, social, ecological, and economic benefits of cities that can feed themselves.
The SOAR model deserves public debate. Changing our production model can save precious resources for our children and provide many other benefits. The examination should include a full life-cycle analysis of corn ethanol and algae-based foods grown in abundance microfarms.
Critics will argue that abundance microfarms do not yet exist. Industrial agriculture benefits from tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and government research annually. To date, abundance microfarms using natural growing methods have received zero government support.
The SOAR model can be funded by a policy decision to shift US government subsidies from ecologically consumptive and pollutive food and biofuel production to growing methods that avoid fossil resource extraction, waste and pollution. Subsidies, R&D and training should focus on sustainable methods that regenerate our ecosystems.
Woody Tasch anticipated the SOAR model. His slow money initiative promotes the goal of having 1 million people invest 1% of their money in local food production in a decade. One of the guiding principles of slow money is: “We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises.” Slow money promotes a 50/50 proposition where 50% of foods consumed come from within 50 miles. The Slow Foods movement also emphasizes the value of fresh foods from local producers.
Microfarms will enable people globally to grow sustainable and affordable food and energy, (SAFE) production locally, for their family and community. Please engage in our collaborative www.AlgaeCompetition.com initiative designed to share your ideas for microfarm design and operation. Your contributions can make a substantial contribution improve the lives and livelihoods of millions. Your insights can help us save our children’s agricultural resources and leave a wonderful legacy of abundance.
Adapted from: Abundance: Sustainable Fossil-free Foods with superior Nutrition and Taste, less Pollution and Waste, Mark R. Edwards, 2011.