Algal opportunities

Biofuel, once championed as the logical, planet friendly route out of fossil fuel dependency has lost its lustre recently. This has much to do with the pressures energy crops place on conventional agriculture. And with the UN’s Ban Ki Moon this week warning that food production will have to rise 50 per cent by 2030 in order to avert a food crisis the logic of turning over our fields to produce fuel is looking shakier by the day.

But hope is not entirely lost for the fledgling biofuels business; it just seems that we may have been looking at the wrong plants.

An increasingly vocal body of researchers are becoming more and more excited about the prospect of generating fuel from algae – the green slime that magically appears in goldfish bowls, ponds, and vast stretches of coastline almost overnight

Highly efficient at converting sunlight into chemical energy, algae is claimed to be up to 100 times more productive than existing energy crops. Given the right conditions, the unicellular plant form can double its volume overnight. And with up to 50 per cent of its body weight comprised of oil, it is thought that it could produce up to 10,000 gallons per acre per year. To put this in perspective, rapeseed, one of the favoured crops for fuel, produces around 102 gallons per acre.

Critically because production would be carried in closed production systems called photobioreactors, algae production would place barely any pressure on food crops. Indeed, US biodiesel firm Solix estimates that the North America’s entire diesel consumption could be replaced by algae derived biofuel grown in an area of land equivalent to just 0.5 per cent of the country’s current farm land.

Plenty of others are latching onto the early promise of algae. Through a new company called Cellana, Shell recently announced funding for a project in Hawaii to grow algae that can be converted into biodiesel fuel. The company is also set to begin construction of a separate 1000 hectare site to further evaluate the potential of the technology.

Even more recently Californian start-up Sapphire Energy last week announced that it had succeed in producing renewable gasoline from it’s algae process. The firm – which has received $50m funding from, amongst others, the Wellcome Trust – claims that its so-called “green crude fuel” is completely compatible with existing energy infrastructure and could ultimately entirely replace oil.

There’s clearly a long way to go before any of these processes can be scaled-up to produce meaningful amounts of fuel. But with the right backing from industry and government, the future for biofuels might be rosier than many currently think.

Jon Excell, Features editor