Algae surface again

…not as harmful blooms but as biofuel feedstocks.

A 20-year study by the Aquatic Species Program, funded by the US Department of the Environment, concluded in July 1998 that even with the most optimistic lipid yields, production of biodiesel from algae would only become cost-effective if petrodiesel prices rose to twice the 1998 levels.

And here we are…

Participants at the International Algae Congress in Amsterdam are focussing on the potential of algae for biofuel production, looking at species and cultivation technologies. Much background work was done by the Aquatic Species Program which screened over 3000 species for high lipid content. Some algae can produce up to 60% of their biomass in the form of oil which can be used without further processing, for some purposes, or transformed into biodiesel, but the challenge lies in finding high-oil-yielding algae with a fast growth rate. Cultivation technology is still a leading issue and a lab scale photobioreactor from Wageningen University is on display at the congress. The purpose of the bioreactor is to study the effects of design parameters on the productivity of microalgae. Open-pond systems, such as those used in the Aquatic Species Program, are unlikely to succeed…they require hardy high-yielding strains  which are fast-growing, and are resistant to environmental fluctuations and infection and competition from other microorganisms.

The pros and cons of algae for biofuels…algae are not part of the food supply and would not be competing with food crops for land; oil yields are high; sustainable production using wastewater for nutrient supply and carbon dioxide from power plants is possible; algae in photobioreactors will not become invasive (which is a concern with some potential biofuel crops). The cons – I’m sure there are some – the main problem seems to be the cost involved in the technology for production and harvesting. Can biodiesel from algae ever be economically competitive with other forms of liquid biofuel? And what about rural communities? Will small-scale systems be developed which can be used by rural communities to generate income or energy?

For some of the latest research have a look for ‘algae’and ‘biofuels’ on CAB Abstracts or the specialized subset Biofuels Abstracts.

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