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What is algae fuel?

Algae fuels are a renewable energy source derived from naturally occurring algae. Research into algae fuel focuses on micro-algae - single-celled organisms of less than 0.4mm in width. Microalgae are capable of producing up to 300 times more oil per acre than other biofuel crops.

When burned, algae fuels release carbon dioxide. Unlike traditional hydrocarbon fuels, algae fuels are considered carbon neutral because the carbon dioxide which is released is absorbed in the process of producing them. The harvesting cycle of algae is 1-10 days. This makes algae less susceptible to damage from extreme weather and allows for regular harvesting in a short time frame.

How is algae fuel used?

Algae oils are used directly or refined to produce other alternative fuels. These include biodiesel, biogasoline, ethanol and natural gas. These are then used in a wide variety of applications.

Biodiesel is considered the most promising of these, as it can be used in existing transport industry infrastructure. It is suggested that 57.3 million hectares of land could produce enough biodiesel from algae to replace the entire global consumption of traditional diesel. Compared with other feedstocks this is a much more efficient use of land, especially since algae does not require arable land to grow.

Natural gas can be produced from algae through anaerobic digestion, the same way biogas is produced from waste materials. Algae are broken down and converted to fatty acids. These fatty-acids are consumed by bacteria, releasing a gas mixture containing methane in the process. The resulting gas can be ‘cleaned’ to produce pure methane, or natural gas. It can then be used in traditional infrastructure or liquefied to become Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Another significant use of algae is the production of ethanol known as ‘algenol’. It is claimed algenol can be produced at 23,000 litres per acre, per year. This compares well with other sources such as sugarcane, which produces 3,470 litres per acre, per year. Pure algenol can be used as a fuel on its own, or as an additive in traditional gasoline.

Oil produced from algae can be refined in traditional crude oil refineries to produce biogasoline. This process can also produce jet fuel. In 2010 the US “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” announced it would begin large scale production of renewable jet-fuel from algae. The project is expected to begin production in 2013 and will produce 195 million litres of jet fuel per year.

Who uses algae fuel?

The various types of fuels which can be produced from algae are common, but the consumption of algae derived fuels is not. This is because most algae fuel production is still in the research and development stage. Very few algae fuel projects are operating commercially.

In Australia, the airline carrier Qantas is set to become a global leader in the use of algae fuel, after signing an agreement with San Francisco based company Solazyme . The agreement will see Qantas using algae sourced jet fuel as soon as it is certified for commercial use.

Where does algae fuel come from?

The USA and the EU are world leaders in producing fuel from algae.

Research into algae fuel production in the USA first began in 1978 and was supported by the US Department of Energy. Several US universities are currently involved in research and development projects relating to algae fuel, though none have yet achieved economically viable commercial production. The two most successful producers of algae fuels in the USA are San Diego-based Sapphire Energy, and the San Francisco based company Solazyme.

The biggest algae fuel project in the EU is a ₤26 million government funded project by the British company Carbon Trust. The project aims to build a commercially viable algae farm in North Africa to provide renewable fuels for the EU transport industry.

Another significant development is the Scottish government supported “BioMara” project. The project will examine not only the production of single-celled algae, but also of large seaweed species which grow quickly and can be harvested for their biomass.

Interesting facts about algae fuel:

  • It is estimated that up to 800,000 different species of microalgae exists.
  • Over 35,000 varieties of algae have been identified and described.
  • In China more than 70 varieties of algae are consumed as food.

Extra References:


For more information, visit our Alternative Energy an section.
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