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Page added on January 26, 2011

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Pond scum to replace fossil fuels

Alternative Energy

It may be just pond scum to some and would make your stomach turn, but humble algae holds the key to a carbon-neutral future, not to mention independence from traditional oil sources.

And WA could be a future biofuels hub, according to one of the world’s leading experts, Professor Michael Borowitzka from Murdoch University School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology.

Professor Borowitzka cites WA’s plentiful sunshine, large areas of marginal land and, for algae production, huge sources of saline water.

Australia currently imports $17 billion in fuel and that is expected to top $30 billion by 2030.

Algae are just one of a host of new fuels touted as a replacement for oil, which is only a few years away from peaking, according to experts.

In a recent report from the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, independent oil expert Chris Skrebowski predicted that the global peak production rate for oil is likely to occur within the next decade and possibly within five years at a volume no higher than 92 million barrels per day (Mb/d), which compares with the current record extraction rate of 87Mb/d set in July 2008.

With major oil companies reporting new finds, the accessibility of these finds means that the cost of producing oil will be very high in most cases.

There may be other problems, as with the great resources of the tar sands in Canada for instance, which requires energy intensive extraction and therefore high costs and is likely to be very carbon-intensive.

The report urges governments to explicitly recognise the potential for world oil prices to be significantly higher than historic averages as soon as global economic activity revives, the possibility of significant price volatility and possible supply disruptions.

The greatest user of oil is road transport, which consumes 50 per cent followed by the chemical industry at 16 per cent, heating and power combined at 18 per cent and maritime and aviation both at 8 per cent.

Based on annual rising demand for the past 100 years, the world will need 120Mb/d by 2050.

The largest global consumer of energy is the US with 23 per cent but the country has only 5 per cent of the world’s population. Oil is the largest energy fuel type, providing 36.5 per cent of the world’s power needs, followed by coal at 26 per cent.

Nuclear is only 6 per cent and renewables such as biofuel are at 8 per cent.

Overlaid in the quest to find alternatives to oil is the race to reduce CO{-2} emissions with aviation leading the way and this is where algae hold so much promise.

While other modes of transport can turn to alternatives such as electricity or hydrogen, aviation must have a near identical replacement to kerosene based jet fuel.

However, for some years a popular saying among those engaged in trying to create an algae-based biofuel has been that “viable production is 10 years away and it will be 10 years away next year as well.”

Fortunately algae are not the only biofuel feedstock, although algae may hold the most long-term promise.

While algae based biofuel has been test flown by a number of airlines since 2009 with excellent results the issue is full scale production. The manager of alternative fuels for Airbus, Ross Walker, says that despite the challenges of mass-producing large scale biofuels such as algae, they “will make up 15 per cent of aviation fuel by 2020 and 30 per cent by 2030”.

Thomas Todaro, CEO of Seattle-based crop biotechnology company Targeted Growth, suggests that this is an ambitious target but qualifies that by saying that “we have a lot of smart people working on this and an increasing number of companies”.

Boeing’s managing director of environmental strategy Bill Glover is very upbeat.

“I get an email every week from a new company interested in developing biofuels,” Mr Glover said.

“I believe that biofuels will make up a significant part of the fuel supply by 2020.”

“Sure the figures are aspirational but they are also intent and we really have made tremendous progress in the last three years.”

A new player to biofuel with a $600 million investment is oil giant ExxonMobil.

While algae hold great promise because of the energy yield and the fact that they are carbon neutral the aviation industry is also upbeat about the here-and-now of the rotation crop camelina.

Mr Glover says the feedstock is very well suited to be a sustainable biofuel crop, as it naturally contains high oil content, its oils are low in saturated fat, it is drought-resistant and requires less fertiliser and herbicides.

It can also grow on marginal land – in abundance in Australia.

In April 2009, Sustainable Oils, a joint venture between Targeted Growth and Green Earth Fuels, said that a life cycle analysis of jet fuel created from camelina seeds showed that it reduced carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared with traditional jet fuel.

In just two years of development Targeted Growth has improved camelina yields by 33 per cent through breeding and expects a further 100 plus per cent yield increase with yield genes by next year.

There is little question that algae are the great green hope and the science is exciting.

In the past three years, Targeted Growth has achieved in the laboratory what the agricultural industry has taken 30 years to accomplish – a 400 per cent increase in the lipid content of cyanobacteria (algae).

San Diego-based Sapphire Energy’s vice-president of downstream technology Brian Goodall says that “fuel from algae is not just a laboratory experiment or something to speculate on for years to come. The technology is ready now. Within the next three years we’ll be producing enough to help meet the growing demands of industry and the military.”

The West Australian



One Comment on "Pond scum to replace fossil fuels"

  1. Kenz300 on Thu, 27th Jan 2011 12:39 am 

    Quote — Brian Goodall says that “fuel from algae is not just a laboratory experiment or something to speculate on for years to come. The technology is ready now. Within the next three years we’ll be producing enough to help meet the growing demands of industry and the military.””

    ________________________

    We need to ramp up production of second generation biofuels and put the process in place to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil.

    Diversification of supplies is a good thing. Like they say ” don’t put all your eggs in one basket”

    Wind, solar, geothermal, wave energy and
    second generation biofuels all diversify our energy sources and provide local energy and local jobs.

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