The Promise of Algae

This year has witnessed the U.S. Navy debut their “Great Green Fleet,” the first aircraft carrier strike group powered largely by alternative, nonpetroleum-based fuels, the British Ministry of Defence launch a competition to reduce its equipment energy spend and the Pentagon increase its investment in clean-energy technologies, including biofuels development.  Could we be witnessing the start of the end of our reliance on “fossil fuel” petroleum?

algae_biofuels

In 2010, the MOD spent £628m on equipment energy and, for every 1p per litre rise in the price of fuel, the MOD’s annual equipment energy bill increases by £13m. These rising oil prices have once again positioned biofuels centre stage as a potential substitute to fulfil our global thirst for fuel.

With so many biofuel crops needing to compete for space and freshwater supplies with agriculture, algae are being seen as an ideal, sustainable alternative.  Algae can be grown in areas where crops cannot, but until now, it’s been difficult to achieve the scale needed for commercial  algal production.

Leading international authority on algal biotechnology and head of the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (www.CCAP.ac.uk), Dr John Day, thinks it’s a major step forward.  Dr Day has over 25 years’ experience in biotechnology and applied algal research and comments “Commercial confidence in the scalability of algal biofuel production is an exciting step forward in the journey towards sustainable, economic biofuel production using microalgae.

Algae Cultures at the Scottish Association for Marine Science

“A major driver for the development of algal biofuels has been fuel security and the US Navy has successfully tested nearly all of its ships and aircraft on biofuel blends containing algal oils — including an F-18 fighter flying at twice the speed of sound and a ship moving at 50 knots.”

“Scientists at SAMS and elsewhere have been contributing to the global development of knowledge on algal biofuel. It is this understanding of the biology of these enigmatic microbes and our capacity to successfully cultivate them that will be the key to producing algal biofuels and other products.”

Driven by the desire to reduce reliance on foreign countries for petroleum, and the constant pressure to reduce costs, Governments are taking sustainable fuels very seriously.  (A recent report highlighted that Pentagon investment in green technologies rose to $1.2 billion, up from $400 million, and is projected to reach $10 billion annually by 2030.)  The Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (which finances and monitors research into algae fuels,) says it has now managed to produce algafuel for $2 per gallon and that it will produce jet aircraft quality algafuel for $3 per gallon by 2013. Unsurprisingly, commercial aviation companies around the world are also taking an interest in algae biofuels to reduce their own costs and carbon footprints.

As interest grows and more funding becomes available, the industry is blossoming and more skilled people are needed. Could we witness a global shift to sustainable fuels in our lifetime?  We certainly hope so.

What is Algaculture

High oil prices, competing demands between foods and other biofuel sources, and the world food crisis, have ignited interest in algaculture (farming algae) for making vegetable oil, biodiesel, bioethanol, biogasoline, biomethanol, biobutanol and other biofuels, using land that is not suitable for agriculture. Algae holds enormous potential to provide a non-food, high-yield, non-arable land use source of biodiesel, ethanol and hydrogen fuels. Microalgae are the fastest growing photosynthesizing organism capable of completing an entire growing cycle every few days. Up to 50% of algae’s weight is comprised of oil, compared with, for example, oil palm which yields just about 20% of its weight in oil.

Algaculture (farming of algae) can be a route to making vegetable oils, biodiesel, bioethanol and other biofuels. Microalgae are one-celled, photosynthetic microorganisms that are abundant in fresh water, brackish water, and marine environments everywhere on earth. The potential for commercial algae production is expected to come from growth in translucent tubes or containers called photo bioreactors or open ocean algae bloom harvesting. The other advantages of algal systems include:

  • carbon capture from smokestacks to increase algae growth rates
  • processing of algae biomass through gasification to create syngas
  • growing carbohydrate rich algae strains for cellulosic ethanol
  • using waste streams from municipalities as water sources

Algae have certain qualities that make the organism an attractive option for biodiesel production. Unlike corn-based biodiesel which competes with food crops for land resources, algae-based production methods, such as algae ponds or photobioreactors, would “complement, rather than compete” with other biomass-based fuels. Unlike corn or other biodiesel crops, algae do not require significant inputs of carbon intensive fertilizers.  Some algae species can even grow in waters that contain a large amount of salt, which means that algae-based fuel production need not place a large burden on freshwater supplies.

Several companies and government agencies are funding efforts to reduce capital and operating costs and make algae fuel production commercially viable. Companies such as Sapphire Energy and Bio Solar Cellsare using genetic engineering to make algae fuel production more efficient. According to Klein Lankhorst of Bio Solar Cells, genetic engineering could vastly improve algae fuel efficiency as algae can be modified to only build short carbon chains instead of long chains of carbohydrates.

Sapphire Energy also uses chemically induced mutations to produce algae suitable for use as a crop. Some commercial interests into large-scale algal-cultivation systems are looking to tie in to existing infrastructures, such as cement factories, coal power plants, or sewage treatment facilities. This approach changes wastes into resources to provide the raw materials, CO2 and nutrients, for the system.