May 15, 2012
Humanity will run out of fossil fuels before the end of this century latest.
It will therefore need to develop sustainable substitutes, especially for air and road transport, as well as for shipping.
Biofuels will be one of them, renewable electricity to power electrical vehicles another one. Both will be complementary.
Biofuels produced from corn, soy beans, palm oil, sunflower seeds, sugar cane/beets and rapeseed already serve that purpose at small scale, especially in Brazil, USA and EU. But these crops constitute basic feedstock for human or animal feeding. Their production cannot be expanded indefinitely, due to increasing scarcity of fertile land across the earth.
Humanity will therefore have to search for alternatives. These should grow on land unsuited for food production, require little fresh water and fertiliser. In addition, their production costs and C02 emissions should be low.
Micro algae appear to fulfil these criteria better than other biomass. They grow everywhere with little or no fresh water and fertiliser. Moreover, they achieve much higher energy yields/ha than any conventional biomass.
But to get to large-scale, low cost algae farming it will be necessary to overcome three major obstacles:
- develop efficient methods for harvesting, drying and separating the natural oil;
- prove the economic viability of algae farming and the competitiveness of algae biofuels with conventional biofuel;
- convince investors to enter the field despite high upfront investment.
During the last 20 years scientific institutes in the USA and Europe have undertaken unprecedented research about algae. Today, we know much better about the qualities of different varieties, e.g. their fat content which can exceed 50 per cent, the optimal conditions for growth, etc.
Private companies, both in the USA and Europe, have developed innovative methods for harvesting and oil extraction.
Thanks to these efforts we know that micro algae have a huge potential for manufacturing biofuels in the future.
The EU wants to be one of the front-runners for what is likely to become a major green industry in the future.
Its 2008 biofuel directive imposes to add at least 10 per cent biofuels to diesel/gasoline. It also requires the EU to promote second and third generation biofuels, in the EU and world-wide.
Consequently, the 7th Research Framework Programme (2007-13) contributes a tiny amount € 21 million to three projects of industrial algae farming with a total cost of € 31 million. The EU has understood the strategic importance of algae farming for its self-sufficiency with mineral oil.
European industry has also waken up to the challenge. In 2009 it has established the “European Algae and Biomass Association” as their EU-wide lobby.
All this can be no more than a tiny beginning. The 8th Framework Programme( 2014-20) should step up research on algae farming and processing. In parallel, the European Investment Bank and national development banks should offer venture capital to private investors willing to enter the new field.
Europe has a vital interest in making large-scale production of biofuel from micro algae economically and ecologically viableAuthor : Eberhard Rhein