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Could microalgae hold the secret to the future sustainable transport fuel?

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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7 comments

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  1. Milan

    Robert Rapier (of the R-Squared energy blog) pours a bit of cold water on the algae option here:

    http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2009/02/more-reality-checks-for-algal-biodiesel.html

    His criticisms aside, it does seem possible that algae will eventually be a feedstock for some sort of commercially viable biofuel.

  2. Samia

    I think with the development of most renewables, the cost is typically high at the outset, such as installation of wind turbines (payback takes years – depending on the size, location, energy consumption etc), as does hydrogen, which is also being considered as a fuel type. Without R&D into these expensive forms of renewable energy, surely we wont stimulate interest and innovation into finding a way of producing it at lower cost? For example, cant we use Solar and climates that can grow algae naturally to produce it – rather than invest in creating the conditions in the UK?

    Who knows how much oil will cost in the future once reserves become even more finite, therefore algea might be used in the future despite its current high costs?

  3. Milan

    I didn’t mean to suggest that algae-based fuels will never be viable at any price or for any applications – only that optimistic projections of affordable algae-derived fuels in the near term deserve a fair bit of scrutiny.

  4. Nyla Sarwar

    Thank you for your comments.

    Indeed the economics of microalgae are not quite competitive with fossil fuels, like most renewables I guess. The huge investments the Carbon Trust and other global organisations are putting into this technology reflects its potential however. Some R&D challenges remain, but if these are overcome and fast growing strains with high oil content can be scaled up efficiently enough, we may see microalgae biodiesel emerge to fill the gap left by depleting oil supplies. I’m quite optimistic on this one, and will be doing extensive research in this area in the coming months so will keep you all updated.

  5. Milan

    Another critical post on algae fuels, from R-Squared:

    http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2009/03/prospects-for-algal-biodiesel-dim.html

  6. algaelogist

    Biofuels like Diesel and Ethanol as JetA fuel can be produced out of certain Algae strains, the real secret is that the Facility has to be absolutely self contained and not depending on any cost effective input as energy and nutrition. We have a cost factor of about U$ 0.19/liter per Algae fuel, besides we produce Raw Glycerol and even Etahnol.
    The real problem in this days is to find Investors providing the needed Capital for building the right Facilities in Europe and the US. Currently this Countries seem to be the best of placing such facilities and producing cost effective Products out of this certain Alagae strains.
    If someone knows where Capital can be raised to get Favilities built would be real great.

  7. wahyu

    how to make a biodiesel from microalgae???
    i am very interesting about that..
    thanks

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