UK Seeks to Tap Algae on its Shores for Biofuels

  • Published on December 18th, 2008

[Editor’s note: Mridul is the newest writer to join the Red, Green, and Blue team. We are fortunate to have him on board. -TH]

Marine scientists in Scotland are set to initiate a £5 million study which could transform seaweeds and marine plant algae into major sources of low emission automobile fuel in Britain. The scientists are calling them the mari-fuels and they hope that fuels produced from the seaweeds and algae would in part replace the controversial biofuels produced from food crops.

[social_buttons]The study, which will be funded in part by The European Union, would look to formalize the best possible way of exploiting the vast reserves of the seaweeds which are found in great abundance along the British coastline.

The study holds great importance for Britain as it could help it achieve the emissions targets set by the EU. British government would be keening waiting for the outcome of the study as it sees fuels from plants an instrument to reduce or at least neutralize its carbon emissions. Britain wants 2.5 percent of all petrol and diesel to be produced from renewable sources like plants.

The biggest advantage of exploiting biofuels from marine plant algae is that it’s a completely natural process which requires almost no anthropogenic activity. They grow at a much greater rate as compared to the food crops, no environment degrading fertilizers are required and no deforestation. The seaweeds derive energy from ammonia produced as waste from farms of salmon fish. So it’s actually fuel from waste.

Britain has been a leader in adopting biofuels as a replacement for the conventional polluting automobile fuels but as a report noted more than 80 percent of the do not fulfill the quality requirements or address the sustainability issues satisfactorily. It could not be verified if a major portion of the biofuels imported were produced without harming the environment. Producing biofuels locally would not only help address the pollution and sustainaibility issues but would also help Britain achieve the renewable energy and emissions reduction goals set by EU.

Since ammonia is a common by-product of many industrial processes it could be possible to transform effluent treatment plants into mini biofuel factories. By seeding the treatment tanks with plant algae the waste products can be used in the production of biofuels. The possibility makes good economic sense too – the biofuel produced could be sold in the British market or exported plus the treatment plants could also sell carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism.

The story of biofuels has had many ups and downs but they cannot be ruled out as a possible replacement to the highly polluting petrol & diesel. Biofuels can be seen as a bridge between the high emission producing conventional auto fuels and the zero-emission fuels of the future. But the key is to improvise and use simple but creative ideas to tap the resources we have.

Image source: Xosé Castro at Flickr under Creative Commons License

About the Author

currently works as Head-News & Data at Climate Connect Limited, a market research and analytics firm in the renewable energy and carbon markets domain. He earned his Master’s in Technology degree from The Energy & Resources Institute in Renewable Energy Engineering and Management. He also has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. Mridul has a keen interest in renewable energy sector in India and emerging carbon markets like China and Australia.
  • Mridul Chadha

    Biofuels produce less emissions as compared to equal amount of gasoline/diesel burnt so auto fuels blended with biofuels actually cut GHG emissions. Now when we use our cars powered by blended fuels it would give out less emissions.

    Algae produce combustible organic similar to gasoline, they just process the waste and continue to survive so they can take up more CO2 from the atmosphere.

  • TimeTraveller

    >>we need to mitigate the

    >rising carbon emissions some how.

    Agreed, however my point is that by burning algae produced fuel, you are still putting CO2 into the atmosphere…exactly the same amount as you would be if you were burning real fossil based fuel. If you've already captured the CO2 with the algae, the sensible thing is to keep it bound up…sure grow the algae, but don't burn it…keep that carbon bound up. It makes not one iota of difference to climate change whether the CO2 comes from –vfossil or bio. At the end of the day, when you've driven to work you've still put your 3 or 4 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere that wasn't there before.

    The only possible benefits to biofuels are economic, renewability and to perhaps reduce dependency on middle eastern suppliers who can't always be guaranteed to be friendly, but there is no benefit climate change wise.

    In fact the best way to fight climate change is simply take the "fuel" out of the whole "biofuel" concept, and just plant and grow as much greenery as possible, but don't convert it to fuel. That way you avoid the pointless infrastructure of conversion and continue to use the efficient methodologies already in place for extracting petroleum from the earth while new enerty technologies are developed.

  • murmur

    see carl hodges and his seawater foundation

  • Mridul Chadha

    1. We don't have the near zero-emissions fuels at affordable rates right now and we need to mitigate the rising carbon emissions some how.

    2. It is not necessary that we use the natural algae for this process we can grow genetically modified algae in lab and use that (as is being done in US) but that could be done only after conducting studies like this one.

    3. I'm pretty sure that the algae do not die in the process. Also, as the Guardian article states, their growth rate is very high so replenishment is not a problem.

  • TimeTraveller

    should be seen as bridge between the conventional auto fuels and the near zero-emission fuels of the future.

    what's the point? You start harvesting algae and you are going to have an environmental impact. Wheres the benefit? It's certainly isn't anythinng to do with climate change, although it might arguably be economic. Sure fossil fuels are limited in supply, but if anything biofuels are going to be more harmful, since the greenhouse gas effect is ( nearly ) identical. With fossil fuels you aren't mucking about with ecosystems (any more than biofuels ). You start taking all that algae out the ecosystem, it can't be without consequences. better to stick with fossil and develop alternatives.

  • Mridul Chadha

    @ Time Traveller. I agree that's why i wrote that biofuels should be seen as bridge between the conventional auto fuels and the near zero-emission fuels of the future.

    @ Michael. The scientists have initiated the study to look how best this resource can be utilized. I think farms could be created given the great abundance of algae on Britain's shores. A British minister also stated that they would like to do it in manner so that rural economy also benefits.

  • The problem with many biofuel solutions lies in the amount of water they require to produce fuel, making it nearly impossible to scale the process to any significant degree…

  • Do you think that 'farms' will be created that carve out swaths of coastline to create a productive and efficient area to harvest the algae? Or might they introduce species in places where it isn't indigenous?

  • TimeTraveller

    There is no such thing as low emission fuel. To make energy you have burn carbon. When you burn carbon you make greenhouse gas. I calorie produced from biofuel produces exactly the same amount of greenhouse gas as petroleum.

    The only way to reduce emissions is use a non carbon energy source, hydrogen, hydro, wind, solar etc.

    If your burning biofuels your not helping anything climate wise. The atmosphere doesn't care where the CO2 comes from.

  • I think this is a smart move, so long as they don't start to affect the algae in other parts. I mean despite their appearance, they're a very important part of the ecosystem. They add nutrients to the water, and animals eat them. Of course they need to be moderated because otherwise you algae bloom which leads to destruction of the ecosystem – they spread out thick and eat up lots of resources and fish die, and it becomes a real nuisance.

  • Mridul Chadha

    I agree with that, Global Patriot. Growing 'biofuel yielding' crops has a big water footprint attached to it. But the biofuels from algae are seem to be very environmentally friendly and the whole process is completely natural.

    Domestic waste and some industrial wastes also contain nutrients in great amounts so if the treatment plants are seeded with algae the waste can be decomposed naturally plus we can get biofuels as the by-product.

  • Great,

    When they need some help to take the algea out off the water the Chinese have already great expierence with this.

  • The problem with many biofuel solutions lies in the amount of water they require to produce fuel, making it nearly impossible to scale the process to any significant degree.

    The oceans, however, present an interesting alternative in that there is potential to produce biofuels based on the water that is naturally occurring – a significant shift from land-based approaches.