The biofuels debate is once again taking the stage, as the more sustainable second generation microalgae based fuels get ready to stamp out the unmitigated disaster presented by the first generation biofuels crops.

The debate is widely acknowledged, among other things biofuels crops such as palm oil and rapeseed, are accused of driving up global food prices, and accelerating deforestation in places like Indonesia and Malaysia. First generation biofuels crops compete for land and freshwater also required by food crops, and the economic incentives for growing such cash crops drive many farmers to switch food crops for such cash crops. Monbiot highlights further political issues, and increases in nitrous oxide – a highly damaging GHG.

However, biofuels developed from microalgae are being hailed as the more sustainable, and highly efficient alternative. Chisti highlights that microalgae are photosynthetic microorganism that convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into algal biomass. These oil-rich algae can be converted into biodiesel using existing technologies.  

Microalgae can be grown in wastewater, seawater or non-arable lands so don’t compete for freshwater and land required for maintaining food supplies. Algae has the potential to deliver as much as 6-10 times the energy yield per hectare compared to palm oil; and presents a sustainable alternative to oil use in transport, presenting up to an 80% saving on the current fossil fuel.

Whilst extensive research into algae biofuels was initiated by the US Department for Energy (DoE) in 1980s-1990s in the form of the Aquatic Species Programme, it was soon halted as the price of oil dropped again. However, recent concerns over climate change have rejuvenated interest in R&D to commercialise this technology on a large scale. The Carbon Trust launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge last year, to fund R&D in algae derived transport fuels, with a vision to commercialise their use by 2020. They expect to spend between £20-30m to address upstream technical challenges and develop low cost, high-productivity production systems at scale. 

Many microalgae biofuels plants already exist, with some clustering in the US. However, UK-based Holin Energy confirmed its intentions to build a large-scale microalgae bioreactor this week too. The World’s first Algae Biofuels Summit will be held in San Francisco later this month bringing together experts in this technology to address the industry challenges and take a global lead on commercializing algae biofuels – particularly their application in the transport sector.

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