Monday 24 January 2011

Aviation Fuel from Algae

Although they still have to overcome some problems to be feasible, researchers have implement new production study

Liquid biofuels seem to be a good alternative to conventional aviation fuel. In fact, testing conducted by Airbus, British Airways, Rolls Royce, etc. suggest that biofuels from microalgae are the future. However it is necessary to improve the production system to lower (52.3 € / gigajoule), improve technological and scientific level (metabolic diagnostic techniques) and make it competitive. By John R. Coca

At present, the constant change in environmental conditions in climate change, makes it imperative that all sectors of industry (and the air navigation sector is not going to be less) to take action on the matter and reduce their environmental impact.

Algae 'Incubators'
In the latter regard, during 2010 there have been a series of tests to verify the feasibility aircraft biofuels derived from algae oil. In fact, the company EADS announced in mid-year test flight of a plane loaded with biodiesel derived solely from microalgae oil.

Towards the end of the year has created a consortium of aerospace companies and research centers to implement, among other things, the use of fuels derived from microalgae, according to EIT . Airbus, British Airways, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, Gatwick Airport, IATA and Cranfield University have formed a consortium whose main purpose is research, improvement and implementation of biofuels such as obtained from microalgae.

As stated in Renewable Energy Focus, Cranfield University has a pilot plant cultivation and processing of microalgae for the production of biofuels for aviation. However, the main objective is the establishment of a marine center for sustainable production of commercial quantities of algae biomass.

Although these tests are very encouraging feasibility can not forget that the production system still has deficiencies which must be corrected for the viability of these fuels in the sector of aviation.

With the aim of improving the production system have recently published a series of articles in magazines such as Bioresource Technology, Trends in Plant Science yBiotechnology Advances. They all give us an idea of the importance of researchers and companies give to the potential use of microalgae for biofuel obtaining a viable and profitable.

New techno-scientific research

In one Campbell and colleagues analyzed the environmental impact and economic viability of microalgal biodiesel.These authors found that emissions from microalgae, compared with those from rapeseed oil and diesel ULS (ultra low sulfur content). They saw that the emissions of greenhouse gases algae varied in the range of -27.6 to 18.2 (g of CO2) compared to 35.9 for rapeseed and 81.2 for diesel. Despite these positive data, production costs are not as favorable as the algae range from 2.2 ¢ ($ / liter) to 4.8, compared with rapeseed oil (4.2) and ULS diesel ( 3.8).These data show, according to the authors, the necessity of having a high rate production of biofuels to be economically attractive results.

Another relevant text they have written mutans and colleagues which examines the possibilities for developing a bioprospecting of microalgae to detect lipids of these organisms in different media. This will facilitate the development of optimal laboratory conditions that allow these organisms to grow the best possible way, thus keeping a large amount of lipids that will be used in the production of biodiesel.

In addition, Norsk and colleagues have published in the journal Biotechnology Advances an article analyzing the patterns of production of microalgae more employees today: open ponds, horizontal tubular photobioreactors and type flat panel photobioreactor. For the three sets of results were 4.95, 4.15 and € 5.96 / kg respectively.Suggesting that the production model is the cheapest of horizontal tubular photobioreactors.

Skepticism and doubts

Stacey Feldman writes an article which states that Mary Rosenthal, the representative of the 170 members of the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO) states that within 7 years the fuel obtained from biomass microalgal compete with the price of oil. In fact, Rosenthal said that between 2017 and 2018 will reach price parity.

This opinion is skeptical about the increase in the production of this biofuel when compared with other more optimistic positions. For example, Dan Simon, president and CEO of Heliae, microalgal technology company based in Arizona, believes the industry could offer a competitive product in about 3 years.

Also, Kaloustian the director of a company focused on Argentina culture of these microorganisms: Oil Fox, also defends its production and viability. In fact, as we saw him speaking on a visit to Spain, Kaloustian advocated immediate and effective production of these biofuels. Indeed, the company opened in August this year its first production plant of biodiesel made from algae oil.

This more or less optimistic stance contrasts with the great skepticism of techno-scientific research. In fact, as reported by Feldman, a report from the University of California, Berkeley 's Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) states that it would take a decade of tests to determine if companies could produce a massive microalgal biofuels may well be used in air transport.

This seems to be the big question, will there be sufficient capacity to produce biofuels for aviation, given the amount of fuel it uses?. In this sense, David Biello wrote that this is the big challenge is to develop a biofuel production that is sufficient to supply even a fraction of the more than 60 million gallons of fuel used in aircraft annually.

However to achieve this objective, the main difficulty that point in the report of the University of California is focused on finding the right strain of algae that allows a high yield production. This problem is taken by scientists from the Spanish universities with whom we have contact (and not allowed us to give his name) working on algae research.These people have great doubts about the short-term viability of biofuels or because still, they say, do not have adequate strain and problems in the production system.

Real possibilities and challenges

The cultivation of microalgae seems to become one of the new international bunker fuels. In this sense Biofuels International magazine reported that the Alternative Energy Resources Company (ANR) plans to start building a biodiesel plant microalgal production in February.

In Spain there are various companies that are already producing this type of biofuel, with one of them and Aurantia Bio Fuel Systems. All of them are extremely optimistic about the possibilities of these new fuels.

The reluctance comes mainly processes and production costs. In this sense, one of which believes that business can not be permanently subsidiaries of government subsidies for these fuel prices do not rise excessively. In this regard, the Website Wageningen UR (University & Research Centre), published an editorial in which it was stated that the cost of biodiesel production from microalgae is, at present, from 52.3 € per gigajoule of energy, compared with 36 € for the rape and only 15.8 € for oil.


The algae are microorganisms photoautotrophs (thanks to the light obtained their metabolic products) and single cell of variable size and can live in various habitats. Most of them are aquatic but also live on land, and their number is extremely high because it was considered that 90% of the planet's photosynthesis is carried out by these microorganisms.

Although microalgae have many years with people, because in Mexico have for years been feeding products made from biomass deu na microalga Spirulina call. On the other hand, other algae such as Chlorella, Dunaliella and Haematococcus are useful in cosmetics, food, pharmaceutical, etc.

Not long ago the idea of making fuel from oil obtained from them and found that it was possible. In this sense, there are (among others) a number of candidates who seem to be the best: Scenedesmus obliquus, Scenedesmus dimorphus, rheinhardii Chlamydomonas, Chlorella vulgaris, Dunaliella tertiolecta, Nannochloropsis sp., Schizochytrium sp., Etc. However, the development of microalgae biofuels has several difficulties because of the industrial production system. Hence, as we see, today this is one of the great techno-scientific research efforts in the sector.

Basic ideas of cultivation of microalgae

Microalgae photosynthetic organisms need to be light, CO2 and water. Through photosynthesis, convert the energy captured from light (sunlight or tanning lamps) into chemical energy (CO2 + H2O + light → Carbohydrates + O2). This physiological process is conducted in the chloroplasts, organelles of great importance and that in species such as Dunaliella salina may require as much as 50% of cell volume. Thus we see that the light is one of the key factors in the cultivation of microalgae, together with the agitation of these organisms and nutrients. For this reason, scientists are testing various systems of microalgal growth in order to improve production, but as we saw the horizontal tubular photobioreactors are most suitable.

As we have seen, for the production of biodiesel is important for the species chosen have within them the greatest possible amount of usable oil. Therefore it is essential to choosing a species or a variety capable of providing high rates of this product. The problem is that species to generate a higher fat content are not precisely those that reproduce faster.

However, when selecting the best possible candidate we have to take into account the growth rate (μ) and productivity (P = μ • Cb), tolerance to radiation and temperature extremes, the selective advantages (tolerance high or low pH, salinity, high irradiance, N2-fixing capacity of the atmosphere, etc.), the high content of certain proteins, carbohydrates, lipids or selective accumulation (or excretion) of a specific compound of high value, and the ease of harvesting. All this makes the production system becomes a highly complex process and very difficult.

For this reason, an interdisciplinary team of Cornell University, has developed some techniques, based on the use of mass spectrometry, to diagnose the situation of the crop. This makes it easier to change the culture conditions of the increasing productivity.


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