Haley Zaremba: Is algal biofuel a lost cause?

[USA] Last year, forbes denounced seaweed-based biofuel across the board in a strongly titled article called “An Algal Biofuel Obituary”. The article was a send-up of the many biofuel startups that had made grandiose promises in exchange for hefty investments that they ultimately were not able to deliver. While Forbes said that “cellulosic ethanol was probably the biggest offender” and continues to be a persistent biofuel industry swindle, the extremely expensive straw-into-fuel venture is followed closely by the extremely overhyped promise of algae and seaweed as a fuel source.

“It is true that some species of algae produce oils that can be converted into fuel. It is also true that crude oil originated from algae and plankton that lived millions of years ago, died, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and were ultimately converted into oil,” write Robert Rapier explained for Forbes. “So the notion of converting algae into fuel isn’t far-fetched. However, executing this process in real time is quite expensive.”

It may have been too early, however, to sound the death knell for algal biofuels. As we inch closer to important emissions-reduction deadlines like those set by the Paris agreement, it becomes ever more important not to give up on biofuel research and development. As scientists and researchers have continued to explore the possibilities for better, cleaner, renewable biofuels, including algal alternatives, we have gotten closer and closer to commercially viable options.

One of the newest breakthroughs in the algal biofuel sector approaches the topic in a completely new way, by treating cyanobacteria as nature’s own solar panels. “Cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae and blue-green bacteria, are the only prokaryotes capable of using sunlight as their energy, water as an electron donor, and air as a source of carbon,” reports Tech Explorist. “These photoautotrophic microorganisms can be engineered to directly convert CO2 and water into biofuels and chemicals via photosynthesis using sunlight as energy.”

This breakthrough, made by researchers at Sweden’s Uppsala University, has the potential to replace fossil fuels with a carbon neutral algal alternative, which will power itself with nothing more than sunlight, carbon dioxide (consuming, not emitting!), and water. The Uppsala research team “systematically designed and created a series of modified cyanobacteria that efficiently produced increasing quantities of butanol indirect processes using carbon dioxide and solar energy, without needing to use solar cells.”

Although the Swedish researchers’ findings have great potential for clean energy production, their cyanobacteria-based biofuel method still needs some refining before it can be applied on any large or commercial scale. Tech Explorist lists “product titers and rates” as the “main challenges that need to be overcome for industry applications.” While the product is not market-ready, however, the Uppsala University study, published in the scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science, asserts that their findings are significant and could have major implications for the biofuels sector.

“When the best cells are used in long-term laboratory experiments, we see levels of production that exceed levels that have been reported in existing articles. Furthermore, it is comparable with indirect processes where bacteria are fed with sugar,” Uppsala’s Pia Lindberg was quoted by Tech Explorist.

Making this breakthrough even more significant is the fact that it’s happening in concert with numerous other advancements in the fields of biofuel and alternative energies. “The knowledge and ability to modify cyanobacteria so they can produce a variety of chemicals from carbon dioxide and solar energy is emerging in parallel with advances in technology, synthetic biology, genetically changing them,” reports Tech Explorist.

This underscores the primary reason that it is far too early to write off algal biofuels and other (currently) far-fetched clean-energy endeavors. While one single study may not make a big splash or supply the singular breakthrough needed to disrupt our fossil fuel-based energy systems, working with a wide variety of studies and outside-the-box scientific inquiry gets us closer and closer each day to a commercially viable clean energy future.

 

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