The answer to the search for sustainable biofuels may be in the seas around us, according to researchers at the University of Aberdeen.
An international research team led by the university is hoping to make biofuels suitable for transport use, from microscopic algae found in the world’s oceans and seas.
While land-based biofuels are likely to cause food vs. fuel conflict and are unsustainable, oceanic algae could make an attractive alternative fuel source, says project coordinator Dr Oliver Ebenhoeh of Aberdeen’s Institute of Complex Systems and Mathematical Biology.
He said: “We need to find efficient ways of supplying our energy demand in a way that doesn’t compete for valuable resources like arable land or fresh water.
“We can’t just put corn in your car’s gas tank because it’s being used to feed millions already - it won’t be sustainable. This is one of the key motivations to look into marine microalgae.
“Cultivating algae using water that can’t be used for irrigation, like salt water or brackish water, makes sense because it’s so vast – it’s all around us and there’s no competition to use the land to grow other things.”
The AccliPhot project team will try to fully understand how plants and microalgae respond to changes in light and other conditions and use that information to make new products. While the main focus is on biofuels the study could also yield breakthroughs in antibiotics, nutritional supplements or even produce chemical compounds used in the cosmetics industry.
Micro algae eat nothing but carbon dioxide, light and some minerals. Cells of microalgae typically measure between a few to several hundred micrometers across and can be grown in vast numbers in giant 10,000 litre water tanks called photo-bioreactors. If they can be successfully cultivated to make biofuels, they could contribute hugely to the planet’s energy consumption.
The research project will run for four years and is backed by €4million of EU funding and involves 12 partners from across the continent. Working alongside the University of Aberdeen, partners in the research include University of Verona, University of Geneva, French National Centre for Scientific Research, Pierre and Marie Curie University, The Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, ETH Zurich and Oxford Brookes University.
Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond praised the new research project: "Scotland is leading the way in the energy sector, with our world class oil and gas industry now allied to a vibrant renewables sector that is harnessing the power of our boundless wind and water resources to bring jobs and investment to our country and ensure we can power our nation on a sustainable basis.
"The AccliPhot project could herald another exciting development in Scotland's energy story with the team at the University of Aberdeen using cutting-edge techniques to support the development of a sustainable biofuel from microscopic algae,” he added.