Powering our Future with Algae

A scientific update by Maria Loloni from Biomimicry Germany

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With land, water and air pollution levels rising constantly and extreme weather events caused by climate change, it is obvious that we cannot continue further with business-as-usual. It is imperative that we switch to more sustainable modi operandi, while maintaining and even increasing our global standards of living. Where can we draw inspiration to design such a sustainable future?

In our bi-montly Think Tanks, Biomimicry Germany draws inspiration from biological organisms, exploring the successful solutions repeatedly tested by nature for billions of years and how they can be employed in the human environment. On May 21st, 2014, we will continue our journey with our ThinkTank ‘Rethink: Architecture’, discussing how nature can provide solutions for sustainable building and city design.

An interesting subject that emerged during our last ThinkTank, entitled ‘Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Emergence’, was how to produce renewable energy within a closed-loop system (a system whereby the waste or by-products created are not discarded, but used again as input materials). Biological ecosystems are based on circular energy and nutrient flows. A good example of combining the biomimicry systems approach of circular energy solutions with biotechnological approaches are algae energy systems: What if we could turn our lights on, run our cars, and heat our houses in the cold winter days by using tiny aquatic organisms? Microalgae have been around for billions of years but only recent R&D efforts in Europe and the U.S. have demonstrated their potential to produce high quantities of oil and biomass, which can then be transformed into road transport fuel (biodiesel, biobutanol), jet fuel (kerosene) and electricity (from biogas).

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However, biofuels are already produced from plants (sunflower, sugarcane, corn, rapeseed etc) and electricity from Renewable Energy Sources (e.g. solar, geothermal, wind, tidal) – what makes algae a better solution? Several different factors constitute the main advantages of algae over other systems:

Quantity & Reliability

Being the fastest growing plant organisms on Earth and with a very high oil content, it has been estimated that a surface roughly the size of Portugal would suffice to grow algae for powering the transport system of Europe. Doubling their biomass in only a few hours, they can reduce our dependency on non-renewable resources formed in the timescale of billions of years (fossil fuels).

Minimal system inputs:

Algae only need water, sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) and nutrients to grow. By a smart combination of existing technologies closed-loop systems can be created. For example, CO2 coming out of a power-plant smokestack can be fed into a wastewater treatment pond, providing optimal conditions for algal growth. Such a solution provides multiple benefits: CO2 is sequestered, wastewater cleaning facilities operate without the input of chemicals (algae absorb nitrogen and phosphorus) and valuable fuels come out as an end-product

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No competition with food production:

The finite agricultural land surface we have at our disposal, also considering the exponentially growing Earth population, forces us to make choices between food and fuel production. Existing projects have demonstrated that big quantities of algae can be grown in small land surfaces (in open ponds or photobioreactors) as well as in open sea installations, with no need to displace food plantations. In addition, no fertilizers are required and the water used can be recycled into the system.

Geopolitical & economic benefits

Our current energy system is largely run by fossil fuels. These resources are not equally distributed on the planet, making most countries depend on merely a few producers, which has often in the past caused supply disturbances. What’s more, we are soon going to run out of fossil fuels as we consume them at a much higher rate than they are produced, leading to higher prices and market disruption. Algae can be grown in installations all around the globe, increasing energy security and ensuring standard prices for economic activity to proceed uninterrupted.

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An obvious question comes to mind: ‘If algae have such a great potential and obvious advantages, why haven’t we been using them already to fulfill our needs?’ Algae-for-fuel research has only started recently. Pilot and demonstration plants have shown the feasibility of the process, however there still remains a lot of testing to be performed both on the production and technology side as well as on the end-use side. The cost of the technologies employed remains high, such that the cost of algae biofuels cannot compete with the current low prices of fossil fuels. However, economic viability can be achieved by commercialization of the by-products from the algae fuel production process.

On the positive side, there are numerous successful attempts of algae biofuel use. Starting in 2009, algae biofuels have been used in vehicles, test flights and vessels, always achieving high performance. The world’s first self-sufficient algae-powered building (BIQ House) was built only last year in Hamburg for the International Building Exhibition. These encouraging results, together with the ambitious CO2 reduction and renewable energy targets set out by the EU and other countries at global level set the stage for further research and the creation of economies of scale. The financial and policy incentives already provided by the EU and the US have shown that energy-hungry countries are keen on investing in the algae-solution and trust it to bring us into more sustainable future societies.

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Text: Maria Loloni 
Images: frauenhofer, fotocommunity, aquariumkosmos, fisch

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