Hope for algae-powered future

First, the bad news: because of climate change and worsening water pollution, algae, the worlds fastest-growing photosynthetic organisms, are proliferating worldwide. A few of these are of the toxic blue-green variety.The good news is that some strains of algae can be converted into an alternative source of renewable energy that is commercially viable.Newly trialled native species provide real hope, says Evan Stephens of Queensland Universitys Institute for Molecular Bioscience and manager of the Solar Biofuels Research Centre.There are roughly 350,000 species of algae more than all higher plants around the world, he says. By isolating strains from native Australian waters, and then screening them against a set of criteria for producing fuel, scientists can breed new and improved varieties.By new strains, we mean algae varieties that have not been previously isolated, characterised and identified for fuels, Dr Stephens says.Genetic engineering helps scientists determine traits that may improve yields and other qualities. But in most cases we can go back and rescreen libraries of isolates for these characteristics which are naturally occurring, he explains.Working with Germanys Bielefeld University and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the Australian scientists have identified fast-growing and hardy algae that could lead to cheaper and more efficiently produced biofuels.Previous research concentrated on finding oil-rich algae. Usually these are not fast-growing and are tastier to predators like microscopic scoops of ice-cream, he says.The resultant bio-crude oil can be processed in existing petroleum oil refineries, with no need for additional infrastructure.

This is important as new infrastructure is expensive, Dr Stephens says. We can make the same things from bio-crude that we make from regular crude namely petrol, diesel, aviation fuel and plastics.A new frontier is in the biology and developing of new strains that grow stably, while exhibiting resistance to predators and temperature fluctuations.r Stephens and his team identified hundreds of native species of microscopic algae from freshwater and saltwater environments around Australia. These were tested against thousands of environmental conditions in the laboratory, creating a shortlist of top performers.The researchers are currently trialling the algae at a pilot processing plant at Pinjarra Hills, Queensland, which opened in April.Traditionally, algae have been grown for health foods, aquaculture and waste-water treatment. In recent years, algae oil has become the focus of an emerging biofuel industry. Its production is still expensive, however, and viable commercial production has not yet been achieved in Australia or overseas.While we know that we can produce algae oil that is even higher quality than standard petroleum sources, we are working to increase the efficiency of production with the ultimate aim being able to compete with fossil fuels dollar for dollar, Dr Stephens says.Found anywhere from oceans, lakes and swamps to soils, rocks and icy mountain tops, algae harness solar energy to convert greenhouse gas into just about everything we need.Algae accumulate up to 80 per cent of their dry weight in oil. Their biomass can double every eight to 12 hours, and they produce oil year-round, unlike most seasonal crops, says Aidyn Mouradov, a plant biotechnologist at RMIT University in Bundoora.Algae are more productive, he says, than other energy crops such as corn, soy or oil palm. For example, algae can produce 10 times more than palm oil and require 10 times less land area. This is important as biofuel crops have occupied valuable arable land that could otherwise be used to grow food.

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