Algae, biofuels of the future?

Guest blog by Daniel Israelsson, MTK311 HT19

The time we live in is marked by discussions about how to solve the problem of switching to biofuels, but at the same time not using our cultivable arable land or adversely affecting animals and nature.

But our seas then? The earth consists of over 70% water, where there is great potential, even at our latitudes according to Lorenza Ferro, a researcher at Umeå University, who in a study (Ekman, 2019) shows that algae can cope with our harsh climate. In combination with Susanne Ekendahl’s research (Ekendahl, 2009) that highlights the potential of algae, they can be the next big step in a fossil-free future. The potentials that have been demonstrated include that they can produce incredibly large harvests, where laboratory tests yield volumes of 22,000 liters of oil per hectare and year with corresponding figures for maize and sunflowers are 23 and 155 liters respectively, which is superior even under sub-optimal conditions.

It sounds absolutely incredible to my ears, but it must be something holding it back because this has not yet broken through? One of the reasons turns out to be price competitiveness, which is not a surprise. Even though it is our future, the future of the planet that is at stake it is always about money. So far, profitability seems a bit off e.g. it requires “24,000 liters of water, nutrients, equipment, personnel and about two weeks to generate around one gallon (3.79 liters) of finished fuel. The price for the same amount crude oil is 1:90 dollars (15:50 SEK)” according to Schonna Manning, a researcher at Agrilife on the south coast of Texas (Brusewitz, 2018), but at the same time the whole algae is not used for fuel, which means that if you use all parts there is hope of approaching the price of crude oil. Crude oil is also a finite resource which will eventually increase the price of it, and in line with the progress made with algae I think we will reach a breaking point where there is no longer any incentive to choose crude oil over algae.

If you look at the other benefits that algae have, in addition to the ones already mentioned, they can be grown in virtually anywhere; in deserts, in the sea, on unproductive land, etc. (Brusewitz, 2018) and with the large number of species the direction of cultivation can be controlled for algae such as e.g. ones that are rich in fats that can become biodiesel or others that are rich in carbohydrates that can become ethanol and biogas (Ekendahl, 2009). They efficiently absorb carbon dioxide and can withstand concentrations up to 12-13% and also purify water from phosphorus and nitrogen, which means that industrial emissions can be directed directly to cultivation, resulting in that the harmful greenhouse gases are purified immediately after production. (Ekendahl, 2009) (SP Sveriges Tekniska Forskningsinstitut, 2019).

Our ability to use the earth’s resources and to develop technology that optimizes this has led to great progress for us, but at the same time it has cost us and as it looks right now it will cost us our future. But the ability and innovativeness that brought us here will also take us out of it, if we just can get everyone to understand this. At least by my opinion.

References

Brusewitz, M. (den 20 April 2018). Alger som flygbränsle – hajp eller hopp? Sveriges Natur nr 2-2018 .

Ekendahl, S. (den 19 10 2009). RI.se. Hämtat från Odlade alger – framtidens energikälla?: https://www.sp.se/sv/press/news/Sidor/20091019.aspx

Ekman, J. (den 14 Mars 2019). Miljö&Utveckling. Hämtat från Svenska mikroalger bäst i test: https://miljo-utveckling.se/svenska-mikroalger-bast-i-test/

EnergyFactor by ExxonMobil. (den 02 Augusti 2019). From petri dish to pond: Algae farming, in pictures. Hämtat från https://energyfactor.exxonmobil.com/science-technology/algae-farming-pictures/

SP Sveriges Tekniska Forskningsinstitut. (den 13 10 2019). Algodling för biobränsleproduktion. Hämtat från RI.se: https://www.sp.se/sv/index/research/algae_cultivation/sidor/default.aspx

One Comment on “Algae, biofuels of the future?

  1. Hi Daniel,

    As you also covered algae, i found your blog very interesting.
    You highlight the potential of algae as a bio-fuel of the future, but as with me, question why it has been held back. Their adaptability to different environments is not something i had though of, but i had mentioned their potential to be used on non-arable lands. I agree that algae can be the next big step in a fossil-free future. One of the keys to unleashing this potential, as you mention, is the development of technology to optimizes harvesting and de-watering/drying techniques, along with innovation, funding and political will, in my view.

    Well done on a nicely constructed blog post.

    Regards,
    Patrick O’Mahony

    Like

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