'Green Oil' by 2020? UK invests in algae biodiesel

October 24 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment   Year: 2020   Rating: 6 Hot

Could carbon-eating algae change how we produce liquid fuels by 2020? Can we ‘grow’ energy rather than pull it out of the ground? A British energy R&D firm believes the answer is yes.

UK-based Carbon Trust, which works to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy, has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with an ambitious mission: to commercialize the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil based oil by 2020.

Carbon Trust’s multi-million pound investment will be led through its Advanced Bioenergy Accelerator and focused on microalgae that can be cultivated and manipulated to produce high yields of oil using carbon-rich feedstocks.

This effort is another signal that the long-term future of bioenergy is more likely to tap the power of microbes (algae/bacteria) rather than plant based resources like corn, soy and palm oil.

Carbon Trust’s initial forecasts suggest that algae-based biofuels could replace over 70 billion litres of fossil derived fuels used worldwide annually in road transport and aviation by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of over £15 billion.

Algae fuels? A Future inspired by the Past
The Industrial Revolution has been based on capturing energy released from breaking chemical bonds of carbon and hydrogen. We blew up coal’s chemical bonds to for steam engines, then gasoline inside internal combustion engines and repurposed coal for large centralized electric power plants. Now the 21st century could be partly shaped by closing that carbon-hydrogen loop using molecular systems within biology?

Ironically this future vision of energy is inspired by the past! Coal is ancient biomass- likely ferns. And oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both are made of complex chains of hydrogen and carbon assembled by Mother Nature’s molecular machines of algae and bacteria. As long as chemical bonds drive the economy, we need to figure out a way to keep carbon in the energy loop by binding it with hydrogen, not oxygen. This UK algae challenge is an important step in closing that cycle in the 21st Century.

Image by Memebox LLC The Energy Roadmap.com

Carbon Trust Research Landscape – PDF

Comment Thread (7 Responses)

  1. 6% if road transport diesel doesn’t seem like very much for 2030. Won’t the UK have to do better than that by 2030? Or do you think it will be used in conjunction with many other sources for transport fuel including electric?

    Also, my understanding of algae based biofuel is that the algae often die in the concentrated oil they produce because they can’t survive in it themselves. Has their been some kind of breakthrough to prevent this?

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   October 24, 2008
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  2. It seems this is one aspect of multiple approaches. As far as I’m aware, the UK is pursuing wind, tidal and other biofuel technologies, as well as helping the solar market (c.f. Germany) in addition to plans to build a bunch of new nuclear power stations. The EPSRC (physical sciences funding council in Britain) has promised millions of pounds for new energy research, and there has always been support for longer term exploratory research, such as fusion.

    I’m well known as an optimist, but I really do think the politicians may be getting the message. Political change is the slowest of all types of change, but when they promise the dollars/pounds, things tend to happen.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   October 24, 2008
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  3. @CptSunbeam – Political change is the slowest of all types of change, but when they promise the dollars/pounds, things tend to happen.

    That’s what motivates anybody—even the ‘biofuel’ industry. Going green means making green. It’s all about profit.


    Posted by: Covus   October 24, 2008
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  4. Re: Mielle yes, 6% is conservative b/c is quantifying ability to scale is hard to forecast vs our known ability to extract petroleum. Harsh reality is that oil dominates in a big way for next 30-50 years. And you are right with main challenge of algae—hardest part is keeping them alive by balancing factors in growing environment. This is why chemistry driven process to make fuel are favored (easier to scale)- while biology is very unpredictable and harder to control. But biology could be a lower cost method in the long run…

    Re: Capt - agree with you… definitely only one piece of puzzle. No silver bullets in energy sector.

    Only problem with fusion/solar/geothermal (et al) is that they produce electricity—- while our vehicles are powered by liquid fuels. So you can’t substitute electrons for chemical bonds of petroleum. We’ll have to move beyond combustion engine towards electric motors so electricity and hydrogen can be used in the transportation fuels market.

    Posted by: Garry Golden   October 25, 2008
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  5. RE: Garry Golden I agree! we seem to have already past that phase in our development. I think the hybrid adaptation we already have is a good sign. Are they heading backwards? or are we investing in a more industrial adaptation to assist with the workload in the consumable arena for example.

    Posted by: LifeORiley   November 13, 2008
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  6. RE:LifeORiley Could you put that in another way? Interested in the direction of your question- but don’t want to assume too much…

    Posted by: Garry Golden   November 15, 2008
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  7. What I mean is we have already reached a better angle with current hybrids on the market and where that technology is leading us. Maybe this could be used for the industrial environment. I hate to use the term “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” but in this instance it seems to me that we have found an easier option with current advancements.

    Posted by: LifeORiley   December 11, 2008
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