[UK] Could pond scum be the superfuel of the future? Researchers at Swansea University believe the slimy substance could one day power cars after being grown in tanks.
It is thought algae could even be the source of bio-plastics, health products and animal feed.
Algae can double its mass several times in a day and can produce more than 15 times more oil per hectare than alternatives such as rape, palm, soya or jatropha.
Marine blooms of algae also have the ability to absorb carbon dioxide so farming it also has the potential to absorb waste emissions directly from industrial or power plants.
And as it can be grown in areas not needed for food, it would not lead to the type of deforestation seen with alternative fuels such as palm oil.
There are around 40,000 different types of micro-algae, including in the seaweed used in laverbread.
They are a highly diverse group of microscopic single-celled organisms that live naturally in most aquatic environments on Earth.
The EnAlgae project led by Swansea University and funded by the European Union, aims to provide a new generation of micro-algal biotechnology industries in Wales with technical expertise and the development of new products, processes and services based on micro-algal biotechnology.
This month, members of the European Parliament have been given a first hand view of the work being undertaken in the EnAlgae project when its scientists held a project showcase at the European Parliament in Brussels aimed at informing politicians about how algae can play a role in a more sustainable future.
As well as biofuels, algae can be used for carbon capture, making health products such as Omega 3 oils, antioxidants and pigments, and can become ingredients for agricultural feeds and could even produce bio-plastics.
Fuel giants Shell and Exxon Mobil are already investing heavily in micro-algal fuel research.
Particular interest has been shown in Botryococcus braunii algae, which excrete oil (if their microscopic green strands are given enough light) and plenty of carbon dioxide.
The oil globules that form on the surface of the algae can be easily harvested and then refined using the same technologies with which the oil industry now converts crude oil into everything from jet fuel to plastics.
A field of corn, when converted into the biofuel ethanol, may produce about 0.2 tonnes of oil equivalent per hectare, while rapeseed may generate around 1.2 tonnes.
But micro-algae can theoretically produce between 50 and 140 tonnes using the same plot of land.
Speaking of the European showcase, EnAlgae project leader Dr Shaun Richardson said: “We were delighted to have been given this opportunity to engage with politicians at the highest level and tell them about EnAlgae and what we are achieving.
“EnAlgae has less than a year to run and so this is the most exciting time for the project as our results come together.
“This will then enable us to offer sound advice to our MEPs and other stakeholders on how algae can be integrated into the European bioeconomy, both in terms of their bioenergy potential and their role in reusing liquid and gaseous wastes including reducing CO2 emissions.”
Welsh MEP Derek Vaughan, former leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, said of the EnAlgae research: “This project is an excellent example of how EU funding is now being used in innovative ways to develop sustainable energy sources of the future.”
Photo: Researchers at Swansea University working on algae samples
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