If humans may be called the microcosm of the universe, algae can be considered as the microcosm of environment-friendly energy coming from existing biological sources – the new green biofuel. Wile global scale production of oil from algae still needs to overcome certain practical challenges, the homework on producing an eco-friendly form of biofuel from algae has been completed and various environmental-friendly fuel companies are looking forward to cash this immensely valuable natural source of energy that is barely visible to the general attention of our species.
The history of algae biofuel dates back to 1978 when the Aquatic Species Program (launched in the US) started research on energy production from high-lipid algae that were grown in ponds. Trying, at first, to get hydrogen from algal population, the program later focused on oil production, especially biodiesel. In the mid 90s, the research program came to an end and the publications from the program came out by early 2001. It concluded that the green biofuel from algae would only be economical if oil prices would double than the existing (1998) ones. Today, that limit has been far exceeded and hence the increased interest in algae biofuel for large-scale energy production.
Microalgae grow much more rapidly than land plants used for biofuel extraction. Their yield per unit area is up to 30 times greater than the most productive terrestrial plants. Also, algae can grow in diverse environments ranging from entirely aquatic to dry deserts with only saline groundwater reserves. Some of them have the quality of converting about 60% of their biomass into fuel. Obviously, algae stand as the most suited candidates for biofuel production. One of the most remarkable merits of algae biofuel production lies in the prospect of saving valuable terrestrial plants for other uses, particularly as food.
Today, algae biofuel stands at the forefront of green energy projects, including production of transport fuel, with a number of advantages over conventional forms of oil-extraction from non-algal sources. While algal biofuel may come in various forms like biodiesel, biobutanol, biogasoline, methane, and straight vegetable oil (SVO), currently the primary interest of fuel companies is the production of biodiesel from algae; so far, it appears the sole viable form of alternative transport fuel on a global scale.
Currently, algae biofuel production is emerging out of experimental stages in different parts of the world. In the Netherlands, Algaelink has developed a new way of extracting oil from wet algae through centrifugation of the algae paste. This development is more environment-friendly and will save more time and energy than previous methods of oil extraction from algae. At the same time, the UK-based independent company Carbon Trust – working toward low-carbon economy – has announced the world’s largest algal biofuel project that aims at developing the technology required for commercial extraction of biofuel from algae.
Since algae also remove a significant part of the carbon dioxide in the air, their use for biofuel production may be accompanied by a parallel growth of additional algal mass so as to make environmental amelioration a two-fold progress. The microcosm of algae as environment-cleaners is thus a green dream coming true within a lifetime.