Future For Algal Biofuel Use in the UK Outlined

The Carbon Trust, a government funded agency, is to unveil plans that will set the agenda for algal biofuels becoming a significant alternative to fossil fuels by 2020. £26m has been allocated to research and development of infrastructure that will make algal biofuels a commercial reality, facilitating their use for UK road transport.

Given that transport contributes 25 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions, finding a ‘carbon neutral’ alternative to fossil fuels is essential. Algae do not replicate the problems associated with crop-type biofuels, which have contributed to a massive rise in food prices as well as widespread natural habitat loss.

John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Council, said:

“Algae are potentially attractive means to harvest solar energy: they reproduce themselves, so there’s no manufacturing cost for the solar converter, they can live in areas not useful for food or similar productive use, they don’t need clean or even fresh water so don’t add to global water stress, and can give oils, biomass, or even hydrogen as a product. Perhaps they’ll be the stem cells of the energy world.”

The Carbon Trust believes that by 2030, 12% of aviation fuel and 6% of road transport fuel could be replaced by algal biofuels, resulting in a net reduction in 160million tonnes of carbon.

Recent hikes in oil prices mean that interest could has been renewed in algal biofuels. Initial efforts in the 80s appeared promising, but commercial viability was always one step away because these fuels simply couldn’t compete with the cheap oil of that era.

Transport Minister Andrew Adonis supports the move towards sustainable biofuels: “This project demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that second generation biofuels are truly sustainable — and will further our understanding of the potential for microalgae to be refined for use in renewable transport fuel development, to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

The Wellcome Trust is backing a company developing some of the most advanced genetically modified algal biofuels, Sapphire Energy.

Previous hysterical reports in the media have made blanket references to biofuels, overlooking the disparity between the unsustainable fuels such as palm oil grown in south east Asia, with promising options such as algae. It is encouraging therefore that the mass media and ministers are now making a clear distinction between these, and looking closer at viable alternatives to fossil fuels.