Covering Portugal in Algae Would Fuel Europe

I've often asked whether algae will save the world. Yes really!

As an algal scientist by trade - a phycologist - I think algae are pretty cool. They look great under a microscope, which is something you can't necessarily say about us. They grow pretty much everywhere in the world. They come in almost every colour and size. And they soak up more carbon dioxide than trees.

The recent questions about world-saving, though, are to with their conversion into biofuel. As someone who discovers and celebrates algal diversity, I'm more interested in them before they are ground up and poured into our fuel tanks.

Still we can all love algae in different ways and I'm more than happy for algae to provide a solution to the peak oil crisis, climate change and any other of our human-induced ills.

About 40 years ago, during the American oil crisis, scientists first started to convert algae into biofuel. This work faded into the background during the 1990s when oil prices dropped, but has become quite the fashion in recent years.

There was a good review in a recent ABC Science Show which concluded that algal oil was a long way off as plane (or rocket?) fuel.

In the 13 August 2010 issue of Science two Dutch researchers, Rene Wijffels and Maria Barbosa, concludes that production of algal biofuels will be sustainable and economic within 10 to 15 years. The only problem with this prediction is that the 10 to 15 years timeline has been rolled out quite a few times, over the last, say, 10 to 15 years.

The traditional concept has been to extract oil from algae grown in ponds using waste carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, which sounds appealing. And in recent years vertical panels have been used to increase the efficiency of converting sunlight into algal growth.

To give sense of the problem, and the potential, Europe needs about 0.4 billion cubic metres of fuel ever year for transport. To supply this from algae would require just over 9 million hectares, about the size of Portugal and based on amount of sunlight a place like Portugal experiences every year.

Now that's fine for everyone but those living in Portugal, who may not like to live and work amid the slime. So scientists are looking at making the process more efficient. They note that production of penicillin by fungi is 5000 times more efficient than it was 50 years ago. Algae is still a relatively new crop.

There is potential for the usual kind of breeding and selection that takes place in all agriculture, aided these days with molecular techniques. It will also be important to combine oil extraction with bulk chemical, food and animal feed production. Water will be a limiting factor but it can be recycled and many algae can grow in salty water.

So lots of potential but also lots of science and development to do. Maybe in 10, or 15, years we'll only need to cover The Netherlands in algae to fuel Europe.

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Image: This could be Lisbon if Portugal decided to provide all of Europe's transport fuel needs... The picture is a mock up of a field of algal bioreactors from the Energy Power Shift site.