A must read for Biofuel searcher.. New Release of Biofuel Secrets ..A must read for for every US voter and concerned citizen.. challenges the reader to explore new possibilities and new mindsets that will ultimately be required if the world is truly ready to make a change.. amazon.com US only1. Guardian – Can aviation ever be green
2. Euractiv on Algae biofuels – well referenced – from a few months back, but I don’t think it has been posted before.
Can the aviation industry ever be green?
Cutting emissions on the scale required to meet carbon targets means big changes in either how, or how much, we fly. Roger East sees an industry in need of radical innovation and asks, can it go fast – and far – enough? From Green Futures, part of the Guardian Environment Network
* From Green Futures, part of the Guardian Environment Network
* guardian.co.uk, Friday 8 January 2010 11.08 GMT
* Article history
Britain can meet its stretching emissions reduction targets and still keep flying. That, at least, is the view of Ed Miliband, the UK's Energy and climate change secretary, echoed in a report by the Committee on Climate Change. How? By holding aviation emissions no higher than their current level – and cutting the carbon from everything else we do by 90%.
It sounds ambitious. But such is our addiction to flight that many believe it's more feasible – not least politically – to make deeper cuts in non-aviation sources than to accept being earthbound. The climate change committee has floated the idea of introducing flying allowances as one way of keeping aviation growth to an acceptable 60% by 2050 (as opposed to the Government's estimate of 200%).
Even so, just keeping emissions static will be a huge challenge to the airline industry. It has always reckoned on rising passenger numbers, and demand reduction isn't really in its lexicon. Hit by a recessionary blip, airlines have been warning business customers off teleconferencing in favour of the virtues of face-to-face meetings. Yet at the same time, they have been trumpeting a commitment to the ten year goal of "carbon neutral growth" announced by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
On the surface, it's a contradiction in terms. So how might aviation try to square the circle?
The simplest way to cut carbon is to cut fuel use. US commercial airlines alone burn about 50 million gallons of kerosene (the main aviation fuel) every day. Any reduction, of course, kicks right through to the bottom line in cost savings. So the industry has a vested interest in finding ways to cut consumption – all the more so, as concerns over 'peak oil' loom.
There'd be a further incentive if governments grasped the nettle and started taxing aviation fuel. It's currently exempt, even for domestic flights. And that, argues the Campaign for Better Transport, gives airlines an unfair subsidy over rail. Clawing this back in Britain alone, they claim, would be enough to pay for a high speed rail line from London to Birmingham. And a fuel tax on domestic flights that increased the price of air travel by 50% could cut carbon emissions by one million tonnes a year.
But there are few votes in taxes. And so it's hardly surprising that the aviation lobby's resistance to anything more than very modest passenger duties or departure taxes cuts more ice with politicians than the call of green groups for tougher action.
However, one thing has changed for good, and that's the assumption that aviation emissions cost nothing. In Europe at least, the industry is preparing itself for the prospect of a market price on its carbon via 'cap and trade'. From 2012, the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will for the first time include aviation. Lobbying continues on how tight the cap should be, and what proportion of permits should be doled out free rather than auctioned – but emissions trading in some form is now factored in to the industry's expectations.
In ten years' time, says independent aviation policy analyst Chris Hewett, it might be operating under a single global cap, with operators required to buy their initial permits at auction, then trading between themselves and on the wider carbon market. Carbon offsets could play a role, he believes, so long as controls are strict and the overall global cap sufficiently tight. Indeed, he goes so far as to call them "desirable, likely and feasible" under this kind of system. "We'll end up paying more for flying", says Hewett, "but that investment will go into cutting emissions elsewhere in the economy". Offsets won't replace the need for emission cuts at source, however.
So with kerosene looking like an increasingly expensive option, what alternatives are in the offing? Top of the list are 'carbon neutral' biofuels. Two years ago they were totally untried, but now, says Jonathon Counsell, Head of Environment at British Airways, they've "become a key part of BA's future carbon strategy". Virgin Atlantic scored the 'industry first' in 2008, flying a 747 to Amsterdam with one of its engines using a 20% biofuel mix made from coconut oil and babassu nuts [see Take-off for biofuels?]. Since then, Air New Zealand and Japan Airlines have used biofuels derived from jatropha oil and hardy oilseed-bearing camelina plants as (higher percentages) of the overall fuel mix. And Continental has done an experimental flight around the Gulf of Mexico with one engine running entirely on fuel made from microscopic algae.
Such 'proof of concept' work suggests that biofuels could offer a 60% carbon saving, and has dispelled fears that they were doomed by lack of energy density or a tendency to gel at low temperatures. Existing plane engines, it seems, can use them without modifications in 50/50 blends – a recipe which could secure the necessary US Federal Aviation Administration approvals within two years.
So they work. But are supplies sufficient to meet demand? The big issue now, acknowledges Counsell, is taking biofuels to scale. IATA has set a goal of 10% of airline fuel to come from 'alternative sources' – which basically means biofuel – by 2017. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Group, an industry consortium, wants planes to use 600 million gallons of biofuel a year by 2015. At this threshold, says Counsell, biofuels can be an economically sustainable part of the supply chain. It would still cost more than kerosene to buy, but that would be balanced by the expected financial value of the carbon saving it delivers.
If plant-based biofuels like jatropha really take off, though, they will create a massive demand for land on which to grow them. There is some prospect that significant supplies could be produced from degraded land unsuitable for other uses. But once a flourishing market is in place, it's hard to imagine that we won't see forests being cleared and food crops being displaced to make way for lucrative biofuels – which is hardly a sustainable option.
"An algal pond the size of Belgium could meet all aviation's current fuel needs"
Hence the excitement over algae. Algal (often called 'third generation' biofuels), although currently experimental and expensive, could really help on this score, since they have the potential to be grown in waste or even salty water [see 'Algae biofuels race hots up'] – and they produce a lot more fuel per hectare. "An algal pond the size of Belgium" could meet all of aviation's current fuel needs, says Sian Foster, Head of Business Sustainability at Virgin Atlantic. By comparison, you'd need "a field the size of the EU" to grow that much from plant-based biofuels.
So is that it – problem solved? Far from it, says Rupert Fausset, Forum for the Future's sustainable transport expert. There's still a big climate problem even if you use algal biofuel instead of kerosene to cut the CO2, he says. The 'radiative forcing' effect from emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and water vapour (contrails) at high altitudes causes at least half a plane's climate change impact, and would remain largely unaffected by a move to biofuels. Even if these succeeded in cutting aviation's climate impact by as much as 30%, as their proponents hope, he adds, "a return to aviation growth could negate that in just five years. Biofuels do not change the game", he concludes. "The industry will have to make many more fundamental changes if it is to grow sustainably."
So what other options are there? More efficient flying would help. In part, that means smarter, more integrated air traffic control systems – so planes flying over Europe wouldn't have to follow fuel-sapping zig-zag routes designed to fit in with all the various national systems of the countries below. It would also reduce the amount of time they spend stacking in holding circuits waiting to land. This much is feasible, and could improve efficiency on some routes by 10-20%.
Then there are improvements to engines and aircraft body design. A long series of gradual cuts in fuel use have been achieved by boosting engine efficiency and using lightweight materials for the body, such as in the current generation of 737s. In the next few years, Boeing and Airbus should bring into service new turbofan engines which promise 10-15% better performance. Overall, IATA is confident of meeting its targets for annual efficiency improvements of 1.5% across the world's airline fleets.
But there's only so far that efficiency curve can rise, warns Keith Hayward, Head of Research at the UK's Royal Aeronautical Society. We're reaching the point where further gains in fuel burn economy in current gas turbine engines come up against the basic laws of physics and chemistry, where they're only achievable at the expense of increasing NOx emissions. The new open rotor technology, which could be eight years away, might deliver as much as a 30% step change, but there are big commercial risks with such new departures, and real worries too about how noisy they are – the issue which has always attracted by far the most public complaint.
Nor is there much low-hanging fruit left for plucking in the field of aerodynamics and design. Again, says Hayward, we'd need something really radical to make much of a difference. The reconfiguring of plane body shapes, from the current 'tubes with wings' into so-called 'flying wings', comes into that category. Theoretically, says Jonathan Cullen at Cambridge University's Department of Engineering, you could design an aircraft with a 'laminar flying wing' body shape, which, if you optimised everything else to the nth degree, would run on 46% less fuel than today's average plane.
Worth pursuing, perhaps: but what that 46% figure really tells us is that planes aren't half bad at flying already, and the scope for improvement is relatively limited – certainly compared to houses and cars, where Cullen calculates that there's room for up to 90% efficiency savings.
In any case, the aviation industry won't want to rush into mass production of anything as way out as the flying wing. It's a business that favours evolution rather than revolution. Planes are expected to last 25 years, and it's hardly cost-effective to replace them sooner. Airports, too, won't welcome all the reconfiguring they'd need to handle 850-seater flying wings as wide as a cinema – at least not until the business case is overwhelming.
All of which means that even holding aviation emissions constant over the next few decades is going to be an extremely tough ask. This is perhaps the main industrial sector where it is hard to imagine real breakthrough technologies coming through in the time frame required for making drastic carbon cuts. So either other sectors will have to make even deeper cuts to compensate – deeper than Ed Miliband suggested – or we will have to place our faith in offsets on a huge scale. Or… we will somehow learn to live with less flying – travelling more slowly [see 'At a leisurely lick'], and enjoying digital, rather than face-to-face, contact.
"Burning fuel is not the only way to fly"
For some, though, the dream of zero-emission aviation should not be abandoned so easily. Burning fuel, they argue, is far from the only conceivable way to fly [see panel]. Take Cranfield Professor Ian Poll, who gave an interview in 2008 propounding a nuclear powered airliner à la Thunderbirds. Was he just flying a kite, thinking the unthinkable? He is, after all, the chair of the research group Omega, whose recent competition at Sheffield University asked students to sketch out truly novel ideas for powering commercial passenger planes. Both solar power and hydrogen fuel cells have their devotees, and can certainly lift demonstrator aircraft off the ground – though in both cases the main application seems likely to be powering auxiliary systems rather than aircraft engines. Then there are lighter-than-air airships – at present only niche players, but in the eyes of some, aviation's best long-term bet, capable of offering spacious facilities, comfort and train-like speeds for the leisure and business travel market of the future.
Innovations in aviation have a mixed track record, to say the least, but confounding the sceptics has been part of it from the start.
21st CENTURY AIRSHIPS The Zeppelin flies again
How it works: Rigid or semi-rigid compartment lifted and held aloft by lighter-than-air gas (hydrogen, helium, hot air), driven usually by gas-burning engine, steered by rudder
State of play: Technology with a (mixed) history, once considered defunct, now enjoying major R&D revival, various prototypes in development, first actual passenger-carrying flights underway
Latest action: Modern small airships developed by a German company (Zeppelin NT, no less) and others offer sightseeing tours for small groups in London, San Francisco, Switzerland and Tokyo – weather permitting
Downsides: Image overshadowed by the Hindenburg fire and other 1930s disasters; relatively slow speed, especially into headwind; stability issues, unusable in bad weather; still burns fuel
Likeliest prospects: Advertising and tourism (already demonstrated), observation, heavy lifting, eg for military equipment, short-haul travel competing with ferries
Long-term vision? Big airships doing London-New York in 35 hours with lots of room to work, play and sleep
What the advocates say: "It's the game-changing technology", Roger Monk, Developer of the SkyCat at Bedfordshire-based Hybrid Air Vehicles
SOLAR POWERED FLIGHT Sailplanes to the future
How it works: Extensive arrays of photovoltaic cells mounted on large, light aircraft with massive wingspans, providing electric power to motors, with (limited) lithium battery storage
State of play: Experimental research, development of demonstrators
Latest action: Flights by ultra-light sailplanes, unveiling of Solar Impulse prototype aiming for a round-the-world bid.
Downsides: Insufficient power to carry weight; slow speed; needs power surge for take-off and power storage for night flying
Likeliest prospects: As unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for observation, high-altitude scientific research and communications relaying; as auxiliary power source for lighting, computers, etc on commercial aircraft
Long-term vision? Limited: an inspirational exemplar rather than practical as primary power source
What the advocates say: "A paradox, almost a provocation", Bertrand Piccard, inventor of the Solar Impulse
FUEL CELLS IN AVIATION Hydrogen takes to the sky
How it works: Hydrogen is converted in a fuel cell stack into electric power; this drives the motor of a lightweight plane, as in stationary or land vehicle fuel cell engines, with only pure water as its 'exhaust'
State of play: Experimental development, first test flights (UAVs and piloted planes)
Latest action: Boeing's two-seater demonstrator flew level over Spain for 20 minutes on fuel cell power in early 2008, having climbed to altitude on lithium-ion batteries; the German Aerospace Centre's Antares DLR H2 motorised glider took off and flew over Hamburg in July 2009 on fuel cell power alone; and the US Navy's Ion Tiger set a 23-hour endurance record for a fuel cell UAV in October 2009
Downsides: Weight of the fuel cell (and any backup battery); low power density; onboard hydrogen storage issues; greenhouse gas impact via water vapour at high altitudes
Likeliest prospects: Stealthy long-flying surveillance UAVs; fuel cells for auxiliary on-board power
The vision? A transatlantic UAV flight within five years, according to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology
What the advocates say: "Still a long way from being the primary energy source for the propulsion of commercial aircraft", DLR (the German Aerospace Centre)
GOING NUCLEAR Thunderbirds are Go?
How it works: Small onboard nuclear reactor delivers power to engines
State of play: Provocative suggestion as post-2050 solution for powering commercial airliners
Latest action: Idea floated by Cranfield Professor Ian Poll in October 2008; previously researched by US and Soviet sides during the Cold War in the hope of keeping bombers airborne without refuelling, and featured on fictional nuclear airliner in the cult 1965 TV animation Thunderbirds
Downsides: Practicality, image, radioactive shielding, accident risk, vulnerability to terrorism, nuclear proliferation
Likeliest prospects: Idea that refuses to die
The vision? Nightmare
What the advocates say: "We need to be looking for a solution to aviation emissions which will allow flying to continue in perpetuity with zero impact on the environment. I think nuclear-powered aeroplanes are the answer beyond 2050. The idea was proved 50 years ago, but I accept it would take about 30 years to persuade the public of the need to fly on them", Professor Ian Poll.
• This article was shared by our content partner, Green Futures, part of Guardian Environment Network
Algae: The ultimate biofuel?[fr][de]
Published: Monday 27 July 2009 | Updated: Friday 16 October 2009
With traditional biofuels under fire for driving up food prices and wreaking environmental havoc, industrialists are stepping up research into algae as a sustainable alternative - but many obstacles remain before algae oil finds its way into our cars and planes.
* Brazil warns EU on biofuel sustainability (18 December 2009)
* EU biofuel sustainability criteria 'inconsistent' (11 December 2009)
* EU mulls extending green criteria beyond biofuels (30 July 2009)
* EABA: Promises and challenges of algae biofuels (29 July 2009)
* Biofuels, Trade and Sustainability (28 April 2008)
* Biofuels for transport (11 April 2008)
* Biofuels: The Next Generation (18 September 2007)
* Biomass Action Plan (04 January 2007)
* Producing crops for biofuels increases greenhouse gas emissions (22 February 2008)
* Banning 'bad' biofuels and becoming better consumers (31 January 2008)
* The future of alternative fuels for transport (30 November 2007)
* Algae: The Alternative-Energy Dream Fuel (05 November 2007)
* Dec. 2008: EU leaders agree revised directive on renewable energy, agreeing a 10% target for 'green fuels' by 2020 (EurActiv 5/12/08).
* 5 Dec. 2010: Deadline for all EU countries to comply with new Renewables Directive. Greenhouse gas savings from biofuels to reach minimum 35%.
* 2012: EU countries to submit first report on national measures taken to respect the sustainability criteria for biofuels.
* By Dec. 2014: Commission to review greenhouse gas emission saving thresholds for biofuels, taking available technologies into account.
* 2017: Greenhouse gas savings from biofuels to reach minimum 50%.
* 2018: Greenhouse gas savings from biofuels to reach minimum 60%.
* 2018: Commission to present renewable energy roadmap for post-2020 period.
* 2020: Transport sector mandated to source 10% of its energy needs from renewable energy, including sustainable biofuels and others.
Policy Summary Links
In December 2008, the EU struck a deal to satisfy 10% of its transport fuel needs from renewable sources, including biofuels, hydrogen and green electricity, as part of negotiations on its energy and climate package (EurActiv 05/12/08).
"The mandatory 10% target for transport to be achieved by all member states should […] be defined as that share of final energy consumed in transport which is to be achieved from renewable sources as a whole, and not from biofuels alone," says the final text of the EU Renewables Directive.
The new directive obliges the bloc to ensure that biofuels offer at least 35% carbon emission savings compared to fossil fuels. The figure rises to 50% as of 2017 and 60% as of 2018.
The conditionality is linked to increasing concerns about the sustainability of the so-called first-generation biofuels currently available - such as biodiesel and bioethanol - which are made from agricultural crops (including corn, sugar beet, palm oil and rapeseed).
The directive also states that the EU should take steps to promote "the development of second and third-generation biofuels in the Community and worldwide, and to strengthen agricultural research and knowledge creation in those areas".
Second-generation biofuels facing challenges
With ethanol and biodiesel coming under fire for driving up food prices and putting biodiversity at risk, the EU has committed to 'second-generation' biofuels as a cleaner alternative.
Second-generation biofuels are made from ligno-cellulosic biomass - the "woody" part of plants - that do not compete with food production. Sources include residues from crop and forest harvest such as leaves, tree bark, straw or woodchips as well as the non-edible portions of corn or cane.
However, converting the woody biomass into liquid sugars requires costly technologies involving pre-treatment and fermentation with special enzymes, meaning that second-generation biofuels cannot yet be produced economically on a large scale.
"It is unlikely that second-generation biofuels will be competitive with first generation by 2020," said the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in a 2008 study. And if they do, they will use largely imported biomass anyway, the JRC added, as latest studies indicate there will not be enough wood available to meet energy needs while continuing to supply Europe's existing wood industries.
Algae: High yields, no competition for land
To overcome these problems, some start-ups have now turned to so-called third-generation biofuels.
The United States Department of Energy (DoE) defines those as crops "designed exclusively for fuel production" such as perennial grasses, fast-growing trees and algae. These plants are not normally cultivated for agro-alimentary uses and have a particularly high percentage of biomass, it says.
Chief among those are algae. They are considered the most efficient organisms on earth, because of their rapid growth rate (some species can double their biomass in a day) and their high oil content.
Research into algae for the mass-production of oil is mainly focused on microalgae or phytoplankton – organisms capable of photosynthesis that are less than 0.4 mm in diameter.
"Algae can produce more biomass and more biofuel molecules much more efficiently in time and space than any terrestrial plant," says Greg Mitchell of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego (UCSD). "For example, algae can produce 100 times more vegetable oil per acre per year than soy beans and 10 times more than oil palm," he told WIPO Magazine, a publication of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
According to US oil giant ExxonMobil, which recently launched a $600 million research and development project on the issue, algae could yield more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year of production (7,580 litres). Approximate yields for other fuel sources are far lower, it pointed out:
* Palm — 650 gallons per acre per year (2,463 litres).
* Sugar cane — 450 gallons per acre per year (1,705 litres).
* Corn — 250 gallons per acre per year (947 litres).
* Soy — 50 gallons per acre per year (190 litres).
As a consequence, algae need much less land to grow than conventional biofuels, ending the potential for conflict with food production which comes with increased energy crop cultivation.
No need for freshwater
Algae have many other advantages. Aside from better yields, they are able to grow on ocean or wastewater, avoiding tapping into scarce freshwater resources for irrigation.
Algae grow best in seawater, which comes in virtually unlimited supply, says Raffaello Garofalo, executive director at the European Algae Biomass Association (EABA). And the micro-organism seems to be particularly fond of polluted seawater, which helps it grow at exponential rates.
"In all polluted sea places, there is a phenomenon which happens naturally called eutrophisation, which means there is an over-growth of algae," says Garofalo. "Precisely because pollution brings excess nutrients to the algae and therefore they grow exponentially."
The idea, he says, is to feed polluted water to the algae via transparent plastic tubes which industry specialists call photo-bioreactors. The algae absorb the pollution as a nutrient, and the water can then be returned back to the sea cleaner than when it entered, he explains. In the meantime, the algae have grown into biomass, which can be used for biofuels.
As a result, algae can be grown on so-called marginal lands, such as in desert areas where the groundwater is saline. Besides, they can feed on waste nutrients, including polluted water produced by the oil and gas industries.
In addition, microalgae have proved to grow more quickly when fed with carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas. When injected into a photo-bioreactor, the CO2 helps the plant grow faster while at the same time providing a way of "recycling" the CO2.
If algae plants are fitted next to factories or power stations, this could even open prospects for reducing emissions from industry.
"You could for example put algae next to a cement plant or a thermo-electric plant and you inject the carbon coming out of the plant in the bioreactor," Garofalo explains. "This means that the CO2, instead of coming out of the chimney, goes into the bioreactor to produce algae, which is burnt a second time as a fuel and then only goes into the atmosphere. So the same CO2 can be re-used twice."
In Arizona, GreenFuel, a private company, has developed a large-scale algae-to-biofuel plant, which uses CO2 emissions from a nearby power plant, the Arizona Public Service Redhawk power facility. The facility, which opened in 2005, won the 2006 Platts Emissions Energy Project of the Year Award.
Cost the main challenge
However, a number of challenges remain before algae can reach mainstream commercial applications, with uncertainties about cost the greatest obstacle.
Various algae species typically cost between US$5–10 per kg dry weight, according to US reports, with further research looking into ways of reducing capital and operating costs to make algae oil production commercially viable.
Bernard Raemy, executive vice-president at the Carbon Capture Corporation (CCC), a US-based company which claims to be a leader in the nascent algae-based biofuel industry, acknowledges that algae face a string of challenges. Speaking to WIPO Magazine, Raemy said these include "algae harvesting, dewatering, drying, lipid extraction and conversion". "Coordinated research efforts are required to bring research from the lab to the field," he said.
Research challenge: Bringing costs down
In the United States, several R&D activities have taken place since the 1950s. The largest was the Aquatic Species Programme, launched in 1978 by the US Department of Energy (DOE). The programme focused on finding the best strains which produce the highest yield and have the highest lipid content, while resisting fluctuations in temperature, particularly when cultivated in outdoor ponds.
Over 3,000 strains of microalgae were collected and screened, with the number later narrowed down to 300. However, no single strain was found to be perfect for all kinds of climate or water and the programme was closed in 1996, when US gasoline prices went down to $26/litre.
According to a review by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), outdoor mass production of algae in open ponds faces a number of challenges, including:
* Temperature variations, which affects productivity and growth;
* Invasion by native microalgae species, which may wipe out the cultivated strain;
* Water loss due to evaporation, and;
* Lower lipid content of algae produced in ponds.
When cultivated in photo-bioreactors, other issues come up, mainly:
* Finding the right type of plastic or glass for the transparent tubes in order to prevent algae from accumulating and obstructing the light;
* The cost of bringing the water via pipelines when algae are grown in desert areas, and;
* High maintenance cost of the installations.
It is therefore still an open question whether algae are best grown in photo-bioreactors or in open ponds. And the economics are a large part of the problem, as widespread mass production of algae for biofuel production is being hampered by the cost of the equipment and structures needed to begin growing algae in large quantities.
"For most algae applications we are still in fundamental research," says the EABA's Garofalo. "There is still research in order to identify the algae kinds or families which are most appropriate in order to produce biofuels. There is still research on what is the best bioreactor shape or plastic that is best to do this."
Harvesting and oil extraction
Then comes the question of how to harvest the plants. "Because algae are micro-organisms of a size ten times smaller than hair, you cannot harvest them with a net for example," Garofalo says.
Options for harvesting include centrifugation or chemical flocculation, which pushes all the microalgae together, but there are high costs associated with these processes too.
Whatever the species concerned, harvesting algae and extracting the oil from it appears to be "one the most critical steps" in producing algae-based biofuels, according to research foreseen under the European Commission's FP7 research programme.
The project, called Aquafuels, intends to bring together researchers and industry in order to streamline European algae research in the future.
But with oil prices up again, new research is being carried out with renewed enthusiasm. And genetic modification seems to open entirely new prospects, with new algae strains being tested for their capacity. The US national biofuels action plan, published in October 2008, appears to hedge its bets on genetic engineering: "Third generation feedstocks should be developed to increase drought and stress tolerance; increase fertiliser and water use efficiencies; and provide for efficient conversion," the plan says.
Environmental impact and energy balance
In addition, open questions still remain about the potential environmental impacts of biodiesel production from microalgae.
A life-cycle assessment of algae biofuelsexternal , performed by French scientists at INRA, raised concerns over the environmental impact of the whole process chain, from biomass production to biodiesel combustion.
Their findings, published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal in July 2009, confirmed the potential of microalgae as an energy source but also raised doubts about the energy balance of the whole process.
Looking at the energy required for the production of fertilisers and construction of infrastructure buildings, the scientists made a distinction between different algae culture and oil extraction techniques.
The study compared two different culture conditions - nominal fertilising and nitrogen starvation - as well as two different extraction options - dry or wet extraction.
"When taking into account all the energy debt of the process chain, it appears that only the wet extraction on low-nitrogen grown algae has a positive balance," the scientists write. In comparison, "other scenarios lead to negative energetic balance despite a 100% energy extraction from the oilcake".
Indeed, the scientists found that 90% of the energy consumed in the production process was dedicated to lipid extraction, compared to 70% with wet extraction. As a result, the energy balance "can be rapidly jeopardised, ending up with a counter-productive production chain," the scientists warn.
"It is then clear that specific research must investigate new processes in lipid recovering with limited drying of the biomass," they stress.
In conclusion, the study highlights "the imperative necessity of decreasing the energy and fertiliser consumption of the process". According to the scientists, the low-nitrogen culture "obviously has lower fertiliser requirements but also implies a lower drying and extraction effort," making this route more promising.
Future profitability lying outside biofuels
However, selecting the right algae strain and production process is not the only challenge which must be met before algae biomass can hit the commercial mainstream.
According to the European Algae Biomass Association (EABA), the key to future commercial profitability is to understand that there is more to algae than just biofuels production.
"It will never be economically viable to produce biodiesel or bioethanol from algae biomass if we don’t think about the co-products," says the EABA's Garofalo. "For instance, when you produce biodiesel, the lipid or the oil part of the algae represents about 25-30% of the product. But what do you do with the remaining 70%? We call it a by-product but actually it is the same product in terms of weight."
Aside from biofuels and jet fuels, the EABA says other applications include nutrients, pharmaceuticals, animal feed or bio-based products. In all these sectors, the EABA says algae and aquatic biomass hold an outstanding potential to achieve a real revolution towards a fully sustainable economy.
With high oil prices driving the push to find alternatives, oil majors are showing increasing interest in algae fuel.
US oil major ExxonMobil recently launched a $600 million research programme in cooperation with Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) to develop, test, and produce biofuels from photosynthetic algae.
"While significant work and years of research and development still must be completed, if successful, algae-based fuels could help meet the world’s growing demand for transportation fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Michael Dolan, senior vice-president of ExxonMobil.
Dolan said research will focus first on testing different strains of algae for their fuel-making potential. Research there can proceed more rapidly than for other crops with longer lifecycles, he said. The second phase will look into the best method for producing algae on a large scale: open pond, closed pond or photo-bioreactor. The last phase will see the development of "small to midsize plants" with a view to scaling up to a commercial module, which Dolan said could be "five to ten years away".
If successful, bio-oils from photosynthetic algae could be used to manufacture a full range of fuels, including gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel, meeting the same specifications as today's products, ExxonMobil said.
In December 2007, Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell built a research centre in Hawaii to study the commercial viability of selected algae strains. The facility will grow only non-modified, marine microalgae species in open-air ponds using proprietary technology. Shell says algae can double their mass several times a day and produce at least 15 times more oil per hectare than alternatives such as rape, palm soya or jatropha. Some algae species grow so fast that they double their size three or four times in one day, it said, highlighting their potential for large-scale commercial fuel production.
"Algae have great potential as a sustainable feedstock for production of diesel-type fuels with a very small CO2 footprint," said Graeme Sweeney, Shell executive vice-president for future fuels and CO2. "This demonstration will be an important test of the technology and, critically, of commercial viability."
UOP, a subsidiary of Honeywell, and Boeing have teamed up with leading airlines to create the Algal Biomass Organisation (ABO), a trade group which aims to test and develop algae fuels for use in aeroplanes. Air New Zealand, Continental, Virgin Atlantic and Boeing will work together through the new group to push for long-term innovation and investment in algae as an energy form.
By May 2009, Bill Glover, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing, said the group had concluded four successful test flights using different kinds of biofuel blends, including algae, camelina and jatropha. The international standards board that approves fuels and chemicals could certify the plant-derived biofuels within a year, Glover said, meaning they could be immediately used as a drop-in replacement.
"There is significant interest across multiple sectors in the potential of algae as an energy source and nowhere is that more evident than in aviation," said Glover, who co-chairs the Algal Biomass Organisation (ABO). "Air transportation is a vital contributor to global economic prosperity, but is being threatened by record rises in fuel costs. Together we recognise that algae have the potential to help offset those fuel costs, while also contributing to improved environmental performance for the aviation industry."
In a statement, the Algal Biomass Organisation (ABO) said algae fuels can annually deliver up to 2,000-5,000 gallons of fuel per acre of non-arable land, and can be a central part of an overall strategy to reduce oil dependency, without competing with food crops.
Raffaello Garofalo, executive director of the European Algae Biomass Association (EABA), says there are many potential benefits form using algae in biofuels production, particularly because it does not need to compete with land used for food crops.
But he warns against over-enthusiasm for the technology, saying there are still many obstacles before it can be developed on a commercial scale. And he refuses to be drawn into predictions about when the technology could become commercially viable. "It would not be responsible to give you dates," he told EurActiv in an interview. "What we want to avoid is a kind of Internet bubble where people make speculations about the quantities and prices of microalgae in the future."
"There is a lot of investment in research and this research is driven by the conviction that economies of scale, improvement in yields and output are achievable. It is a matter of time."
Links Policy Summary
* Official Journal of the EU: Directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sourcesexternal | FRexternal | DEexternal (5 June 2009)
* Joint Research Centre: Biofuels in the European Context: Facts and UncertaintiesPdf external(2008)
* European Biofuels Technology Platform: Strategic Research Agenda & Strategy Deployment DocumentPdf external(January 2008)
* Biofuels Research Advisory Council (BIOFRAC): Biofuels in the EU - A vision for 2030 and beyondPdf external(2006)
* European Biofuels Technology Platform websiteexternal
* WIPO Magazine: Green Innovation - Keeping Airplanes Up and Carbon Output Downexternal (Feb. 2009)
* US Departmen of Energy: National Biofuels Action PlanPdf external(Oct. 2008)
* US National Renewable Energy Laboratory: A Look Back at the U.S. Department of Energy's Aquatic Species Program: Biodiesel from AlgaePdf external(July 1998)
* US National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Aquatic Species Program (ASP): Lessons LearnedPdf external(Feb. 2008)
Business & Industry
* ExxonMobil: Algae biofuelsexternal
* ExxonMobil: ExxonMobil to Launch Biofuels Programexternal (14 July 2009)
* ExxonMobil: Factsheet: Algae Biofuels Research and Development ProgramPdf external(July 2009)
* Honeywell: Honeywell's UOP and Coalition of Visionary Airlines Join World's First Global Algae Trade Association to Advocate Development of Sustainable Fuel Sourceexternal
* UOP: Green Jet Fuelexternal
* Shell: Harvesting energy from algaeexternal (Feb. 2008)
* Shell: Shell and HR Biopetroleum build facility to grow algae for biofuelexternal (11 Dec. 2007)
* Algal Biomass Organisationexternal
* Greenfuel Technologies Corporationexternal
* The Green Chip Review: Investing in algae biofuelexternal (July 2009)
* The Green Chip Review: Special report: Algae biofuelexternal
Think tanks & Academia
* GreenFacts: Liquid Biofuels for Transport - Prospects, risks and opportunitiesexternal (5 October 2009)
* Environmental Science & Technology: Life-Cycle Assessment of Biodiesel Production from Microalgaeexternal (27 July 2009)
* Worldwatch Institute: Better Than Corn? Algae Set to Beat Out Other Biofuel Feedstocksexternal
* EcoSources.info: Les biocarburants de troisième générationexternal
* Olivier Daniélo: Un carburant à base d’huile d’algueexternal
* University of New Hampshire: Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algaeexternal (Michael Briggs, 2004)
* National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL): A Look Back at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Aquatic Species Program: Biodiesel from AlgaePdf external(July 1998)
* John R. Benemann: Open ponds and closed photobioreactors - Comparative economicsPdf external(5th Annual Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, 30 April 2008)
* European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E): Biofuels in Europe - An analysis of the new EU targets and sustainability requirements with recommendations for future policyexternal (February 2009)
* The Oil Drum: Cost Viability and Algaeexternal
* R-Squared Energy Blog: Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?external
* Energy Outlook: Big Algae?external
* 3E Intelligence: Algae: the next miracle solution?external
* BiodieselNow: Forum: Biodiesel from algaeexternal
* Wordpress.com: Blogs about: 3rd Generation Biofuelsexternal
* Willy De Backer, 3E Intelligence (Blogactiv): Algae is no miracle solutionexternal
* Jim Roland (Blogactiv): No competition for land?external
* Gerd Klöck, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering (Blogactiv): It’s the process, stupid. Biofuels from microalgae are not yet sustainable.external
* Oilgae: About algaeexternal | Cultivation of algae strainsexternal | Algae harvestingexternal | Algae oil extractionexternal | Algae product basketexternal Wikipedia: Algae fuelexternal
* Wikipedia: Algacultureexternal
Letters To The Editor
It’s the process, stupid. Biofuels from microalgae are not yet sustainable.
Gerd Klöck, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering
No competition for land?