Dear EarthTalk: How far along are we at developing algae-based and other higher yield sources of biofuels? — Jason McCabe, Tullahoma, TN
A few years ago biofuels were all the rage. Environmental advocates to national security hawks alike were extolling the virtues of ethanol and biodiesel as a carbon-neutral bridge to our energy future. But the bubble burst when it became apparent that there wasn’t enough agricultural land in the U.S. or elsewhere to grow sufficient amounts of corn, palm and other crops to feed both people and their engines. To boot, the process of extracting and distributing biofuels has proven anything but carbon neutral. And with ever cheaper natural gas widely available now, paying a premium for ethanol or biodiesel seemed frivolous.
But a new generation of biofuels based on algae might just change all that. One of the major problems with biofuels that algae could solve is space, since algae can yield as much as 100 times more fuel per unit area than other so-called “second generation” biofuel crops (e.g. non-food crops or non-food waste parts of food crops). Federal researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy report that it would take only 15,000 square miles — less than 1/7 the area now used to harvest all the corn across the country — to produce enough algae fuel to replace all of our petroleum fuel.
While burning algae-derived fuel in an engine or factory generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions just like fossil fuels do, the algae itself requires CO2 to photosynthesize — so overall no new CO2 is added to the atmosphere. Furthermore, any CO2 created through processing or refinement can be captured and re-directed to the growing algae beds. And unlike other biofuel feedstocks, algae production has minimal impact on freshwater supplies — especially when it can be undertaken in ocean waters or even wastewater.
At least three well-funded ventures are poised to ramp up production of commercially viable quantities of algae-derived crude oil over the next couple of years. California’s Solazyme is building an algae fuel factory in Brazil in partnership with food processing giant Bunge and expects to manufacture 100,000 metric tons of fuel there each year. Solazyme is also retooling an Archer Daniels Midland factory in Clinton, Iowa, to produce another 100,000 metric tons of algae fuel per year domestically.
Another company ready to make the leap into commercial scale production of algae fuel is Sapphire Energy, which operates a 2,200 acre algae farm in New Mexico where oil is harvested across 70 open ponds and refined on site. Sapphire — Bill Gates is a big investor — expects the facility, which goes online next year, to generate some 10,000 barrels of crude oil a day by 2018.
Yet a third player in the emerging algae fuel market is Synthetic Genomics, the brainchild of genomics guru Craig Venter, who beat the U.S. government in sequencing the human genome and at a fraction of the cost. The company, which last year purchased an 81-acre site in California’s Imperial Valley to scale up and test its synthetic algae strains across 42 open ponds, plans to genetically modify algae to optimize its oil output. ExxonMobil signed a $600 million development deal with the company to further the cutting edge research.
Dear EarthTalk: How are monarch butterflies doing today? They used to pass through my area in big numbers but in the last few years there seem to be many fewer. — Bill Wright, Erie, PA
The monarch butterfly, royally adorned in black, white and reddish-orange and able to migrate as far as 2,800 miles, is a true wonder of nature. Each year monarchs travel from Canada and the U.S. to hibernate in the forests of central Mexico. But in recent years the monarchs have been in sharp population decline due to habitat loss, eradication of the plants it depends upon and other environmental factors.
The decline in monarchs has been going on for two decades, but the last few years have been particularly worrisome. Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas reports a 59 percent decline in the area of forest there occupied by overwintering monarchs since December 2011. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that overwintering populations along the California coast have shrunk from over a million individuals counted at 101 sites in 1997 to less than 60,000 at just 74 sites in 2009. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains the “Red List” of endangered species around the world, recognizes the monarchs’ annual migration as an “endangered biological phenomenon.”
According to Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas that engages citizen-scientists in monarch monitoring and conservation efforts, habitat destruction is one key driver in the monarch’s demise: “New roads, housing developments and agricultural expansion…all transform a natural landscape in ways that make it impossible for monarchs to live there.” Also, drought and record-high temperatures in North America in 2012 triggered an earlier-than-usual monarch migration. This disrupted the butterflies’ breeding cycle by drying out their eggs prematurely.
The hot weather has also reduced the nectar content of the milkweed plants that monarch larvae depend on. In addition, milkweed is becoming scarce due to farmers’ increasing reliance on herbicides. Most of the soy and corn crops grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered to resist herbicides. This means even more chemical spraying — and far fewer milkweed plants. Nectar producing plants that attract adult butterflies are facing a similar fate, further complicating survival for the monarch.
It won’t be easy to stem the tide of human development that threatens the species’ long term survival. In 2008 the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to help the U.S., Canada and Mexico coordinate on environmental initiatives, published its North American Monarch Conservation Plan to establish a conservation blueprint for the butterflies. Key aspects of the plan include the creation of incentives for the conservation of overwintering sites and the restoration of breeding habitat throughout the butterfly’s extensive range.
In the meantime, the Mexican government has worked with WWF and other groups and made strides in restricting logging in areas critical to monarch populations. And in the U.S., monarch habitat restoration work in California and other parts of the U.S. have helped provide the butterflies some relief. Whether these and other efforts are enough to rescue the monarchs remains to be seen.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m concerned about toxic ingredients in my cleaning supplies, especially now that I have young children. Where can I find safer alternatives? — Betsy E., Hartford, CT
It is true that many household cleaners contain potentially toxic substances, so parents especially should make an effort to keep them out of the reach of children or, better yet, replace them with safer alternatives.
“We use a wide array of scents, soaps, detergents, bleaching agents, softeners, scourers, polishes and specialized cleaners for bathrooms, glass, drains and ovens to keep our homes sparkling and sweet-smelling,” reports the Organic Consumers Association. “But [many] contribute to indoor air pollution, are poisonous if ingested and can be harmful if inhaled or touched.” The group adds that household cleaning products are responsible for almost 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. poison control centers, with more than half of cases involving kids under six years old.
According to the Washington Toxics Coalition, leading offenders include corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners. Contact with these chemicals can cause severe burns on the eyes and skin and can damage the throat and esophagus if ingested. The chlorine and ammonia contained in some can each cause similar problems, and the hazardous gases unleashed when they combine can be lethal. Other ingredients to avoid for many reasons include diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), 1,4-dioxane, ethoxylated alcohols, butyl cellosolve (aka ethylene glycol monobutyl ether), and p-nonylphenol.
Meanwhile, the fragrances added to many cleaning products can cause respiratory irritation, headaches and other symptoms in those with chemical sensitivities, allergies or asthma. And since fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose constituent ingredients, leaving even educated consumers in the dark regarding what kind of nasty chemicals they may be spreading around their homes just to, ironically, make their cleaning products smell less chemically.
Fortunately there are plenty of safer alternatives available today, but deciding which ones are truly healthier or just designed to look that way isn’t so easy. That’s where the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes in. The group’s “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” rates and reviews over 2,100 household cleaning products on the basis of health and environmental safety. EWG lists top products in each cleaning category-from dishwashing and laundry detergents to kitchen and bathroom cleaning to floor and furniture care — and also offers a “label decoder” that helps consumers learn how to spot trouble on product labels and ingredient lists. Some of the brands that garner high marks from EWG in more than one category include Ecover, Earth Friendly Products, Seventh Generation and Green Shield. Look for these online as well as at Whole Foods or other markets with big selections of healthy or natural products.
EWG also maintains a Hall of Shame where it lists cleaning products that either “greenwash” consumers with misleading label information or contain hazardous ingredients (or are banned abroad but still available in the U.S.). EWG makes all of this information free on its website, but a $5 donation will get you a wallet card packed with tips on how to read home cleaning product labels and shop smarter.