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?

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 (, 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.

A Primer on Biofuels

The term ‘Biofuel’ refers to liquid or gaseous fuels for the transport sector that are predominantly produced from biomass. A variety of fuels can be produced from biomass resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The biomass resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues.

The agricultural resources include grains used for biofuels production, animal manures and residues, and crop residues derived primarily from corn and small grains (e.g., wheat straw). A variety of regionally significant crops, such as cotton, sugarcane, rice, and fruit and nut orchards can also be a source of crop residues. The forest resources include residues produced during the harvesting of forest products, fuelwood extracted from forestlands, residues generated at primary forest product processing mills, and forest resources that could become available through initiatives to reduce fire hazards and improve forest health. Municipal and urban wood residues are widely available and include a variety of materials — yard and tree trimmings, land-clearing wood residues, wooden pallets, organic wastes, packaging materials, and construction and demolition debris.

Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking. Biofuel industries are expanding in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Biofuels are generally considered as offering many priorities, including sustainability, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, regional development, social structure and agriculture, and security of supply.

First-generation biofuels are made from sugar, starch, vegetable oil, or animal fats using conventional technology. The basic feedstocks for the production of first-generation biofuels come from agriculture and food processing. The most common first-generation biofuels are:

  • Biodiesel: extraction with or without esterification of vegetable oils from seeds of plants like soybean, oil palm, oilseed rape and sunflower or residues including animal fats derived from rendering applied as fuel in diesel engines
  • Bioethanol: fermentation of simple sugars from sugar crops like sugarcane or from starch crops like maize and wheat applied as fuel in petrol engines
  • Bio-oil: thermo-chemical conversion of biomass. A process still in the development phase
  • Biogas: anaerobic fermentation or organic waste, animal manures, crop residues an energy crops applied as fuel in engines suitable for compressed natural gas.

First-generation biofuels can be used in low-percentage blends with conventional fuels in most vehicles and can be distributed through existing infrastructure. Some diesel vehicles can run on 100 % biodiesel, and ‘flex-fuel’ vehicles are already available in many countries around the world.

Second-generation biofuels are derived from non-food feedstock including lignocellulosic biomass like crop residues or wood. Two transformative technologies are under development.

  • Biochemical: modification of the bio-ethanol fermentation process including a pre-treatment procedure
  • Thermochemical: modification of the bio-oil process to produce syngas and methanol, Fisher-Tropsch diesel or dimethyl ether (DME).

Advanced conversion technologies are needed for a second generation of biofuels. The second generation technologies use a wider range of biomass resources – agriculture, forestry and waste materials. One of the most promising second-generation biofuel technologies – ligno-cellulosic processing (e. g. from forest materials) – is already well advanced. Pilot plants have been established in the EU, in Denmark, Spain and Sweden.

Third-generation biofuels may include production of bio-based hydrogen for use in fuel cell vehicles, e.g. Algae fuel, also called oilgae. Algae are low-input, high-yield feedstocks to produce biofuels.

Prospects of Algae Biofuels in Middle East

Algae biofuels have the potential to become a renewable, cost-effective alternative for fossil fuels with reduced impact on the environment. Algae hold tremendous potential to provide a non-food, high-yield, non-arable land use source of renewable fuels like biodiesel, bioethanol, hydrogen etc. Microalgae are considered as a potential oleo-feedstock, as they produce lipids through photosynthesis, i.e. using only CO2, water, sunlight, phosphates, nitrates and other (oligo) elements that can be found in residual waters.

Algae also produce proteins, isoprenoids and polysaccharides. Some strains of algae ferment sugars to produce alcohols, under the right growing conditions. Their biomass can be processed to different sorts of chemicals and polymers (Polysaccharides, enzymes, pigments and minerals), biofuels (e.g. biodiesel, alkanes and alcohols), food and animal feed (PUFA, vitamins, etc.) as well as bioactive compounds (antibiotics, antioxidant and metabolites) through down-processing technology such as transesterification, pyrolysis and continuous catalysis using microspheres.

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. Algae can be grown on non-arable land (including deserts), most of them do not require fresh water, and their nutritional value is high. Extensive R&D efforts are underway worldwide, especially in North America and Europe, with a high number of start-up companies developing different options for commercializing algae farming.

Prospects of Algae Biofuels in the Middle East

The demand for fossil fuels is growing continuously all around the world and the Middle East is not an exception. The domestic consumption of energy in the Middle East is increasing at an astonishing rate, e.g. Saudi Arabia’s consumption of oil and gas rose by about 5.9 percent over the past five years while electricity demand is witnessing annual growth rate of 8 percent. Although Middle Eastern countries are world’s leading producers of fossil fuels, several cleantech initiatives have been launched in last few years which shows the commitment of regional countries in exploiting renewable sources of energy.

Algae biofuels is an attractive proposition for Middle East countries to offset the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry. The region is highly suitable for mass production of algae because of the following reasons:

  • Presence of large tracts of non-arable lands and extensive coastline.
  • Presence of numerous oil refineries and power plants (as points of CO2 capture) and desalination plants (for salt reuse).
  • Extremely favorable climatic conditions (highest annual solar irradiance).
  • Presence of a large number of sewage and wastewater treatment plants.
  • Existence of highly lipid productive microalgae species in coastal waters.

These factors makes it imperative on Middle East nations to develop a robust Research, Development and Market Deployment plan for a comprehensive microalgal biomass-based biorefinery approach for bio-product synthesis. An integrated and gradual appreciation of technical, economic, social and environmental issues should be considered for a successful implementation of the microalgae-based oleo-feedstock (MBOFs) industry in the region.