Algae, the best solution to make biofuels

I have never been a great fan of traditional biofuels (nor the World Bank and the OECD) as their yield is quite small and as they require a lot of by-products (pesticides…).

However, some alguae like Ulva lactuca (sea lettuce, pictured left) have a much superior yield than cereals and aren’t as much eaten as their terrestrial cousins.

Le Figaro Magazine and Notre-Planè explored this alternative that might really help us in replacing oil when it will be too expansive, and this in a sustainable way.

In a previous issue, Le Figaro Magazine notes that traditional biofuels made of rape seed, sunflower or soya beans are producing a lot of greenhouse gases (rape could produce 70 percent more GHG than diesel). Moreover, they produce nitrous oxide which is 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

This is the result of studies conducted by the Physics Nobel Prize, Mr. Paul Josef Crutzen from the Nederlands. Other problem, these cereals are eaten by people and the demand for biofuels made the price soar in the previous months and this fact could lead to increased famines.

Notre-Planè states that cereals have a maximum yield of 10 tonnes per hectare to compare to a yield that could reach from 200 to 500 tonnes for Ulva lactuca in an optimal way (more likely 80 to 100, still eight to ten times more than other solutions). Furthermore, this alga doubles of size every three or four days.

Other negative sides of biofuels is that they encourage deforestation (case of Indonesia and Brazil).

But biofuels made of algae wouldn’t have all these disadvantages.

First they don’t need pesticides or fertilizers, which is indeed much more a sustainable solution than the intensive and polluting culture that are biofuels made of cereals.

Second, they absorb and recycle CO2 and other pollutants which leads some experts to envision building algae biofuels production near polluting industries like coal-fired plants or else.

Third point worth mentioning, algae require mainly sun energy and could thus be produced in desert regions and countries where no other culture can be done. This could become a serious resource to develop for poor countries.

Fourth point, algae are much more rich in sugar than wheat. Sugar, being the raw material for ethanol synthesis, and thus agrofuels.

Fifth point, the yield of such solutions is just staggering. According to the experts, the yield per hectare is 30 times more important than with sunflower or rape.

Sixth and final point, the price of such solutions. To a US study quoted in Le Figaro Magazine, algae biodiesel could be competitive when the oil barrel would reach 100 USD (it is now around 90 USD). So this solution could become price competitive with oil very rapidly.

Algae also produce various substances that interest industries such as anticancer molecules or Omega 3.

This kind of plants are so interesting than seven French organisms – among them the Ifremer, the Inria, the CNRS and the CEA, all important public research bodies – are investing in a joint program (Shamash) to develop these solutions.

The budget of Shamash is of 2.6 million euros and was launched in December 2006. This is very late as the United States and Israel begun their researches 20 years ago.

To conclude, we saw here that algae could be a real solution to climate change mitigation and to peak oil if we were to work seriously on energy efficiency as they could provide some of the fuel we need in a sustainable way.

Now, I look forward to reading what might become this solution and what you think of it.

Sources :

1 thought on “Algae, the best solution to make biofuels”

  1. Your sources are incorrect and naive.

    Alga – both micro and macro forms require fertilizers, not unlike land plants. Like land plants they consume oxygen in darkness and give off CO2. They also have pests from bacteria up in life forms and require protection and controls for efficient commercial production – just like other crops. While its true that some algae will take up pollutants – those pollutants are still present when the algae is processed and they still have to be dealt with environmentally and consequently limit those algae as food stuffs for animals or humans..

    Equally naive is the view that OPEC will tolerate the development of a biofuel industry unless production costs are less than $20 per barrel or the lowest cost of oil – not $100/barrel. I suggest you look it at how the price of oil has fluctuated over the past 40 years – when alternate energy came any where near economic viability the price of oil plummeted and alternate energy companies out of business.

    There is no reason to think this will not happen again. The bottom line is that not one gallon of algae biofuel has been produced at a competitive price to petroleum fuels. While it has theoretical potential reality is quite different and their are a lot of problems to solve – after the algae is produced that most supporters fail to mention or cost out.

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