October 25, 2010

Flying on Algae

With the first bio-oil produced by large scale harvesting techniques now on sale in Amsterdam, the bio-fuels industry is debating the comparative merits of two main feed stock sources for replacing conventional fossil- based vehicle and aviation fuel.

One of the most promising emerging super bio-fuels is the Jatropha plant, a weed native to Central America, used for centuries as rural hedgerows. One of the fastest growing and most economically viable of potential bio-fuel feed stocks, jatophra has already been used in flight tests. Companies developing this plant as a fuel say that it’s possible to produce hybrid seeds at an industrial scale which could provide more consistent production and more profit.

Recently, some multi-purpose real estate investments are offering returns of 300 to 400%. An investment of $50,000 over 10 years is expected to yield around $230,000. Online promotions describe jatropha plantations as an “ethical bio-fuels investment” in the new “Green Gold”.

The concept of these investments is to buy land in places like Costa Rica where jatropha will be planted, grown and harvested for the production of bio-fuel. Claiming online that end buyers are guaranteed, this project proposes that the bio-fuel is also produced and marketed on behalf of the investors. At least some of the bio-fuel is expected to go to local markets offering some price and carbon savings to the host country’s economy.

Other bio-fuel developers argue that there are better, cheaper and more environment-friendly feed stocks. Cranfield University, for instance, is researching and developing a bio-fuel made from sea microalgae – a natural product with several advantages. Algae feed stocks take up no agricultural land thereby avoiding one of the main criticisms of bio-fuel plantations – that they steal food growing plots at a time when the planet’s population is still expanding fast. Other useful crops – for instance cotton – are already in diminished supply because of investment in bio-fuel plantations in some Latin American countries. Furthermore, using the ocean to grow bio-fuel reduces pressure on remaining world forests, like the Amazon and the Congo, which are needed now more than ever as global stores and ongoing absorbers of CO² as well as being the home to most of the Earth’s invaluable plant and animal biodiversity and many of the remaining indigenous people. Algae can be cultivated in “farms” close to or further out from shorelines. As the algae grow in mass they will absorb CO² from both the ocean and the atmosphere.

Support for Cranfield’s project was announced recently from a UK aviation consortium including Airbus, British Airways, Gatwick Airport and IATA. Expectations are that the first commercially available aviation bio-fuel from algae will be available in around 3 years. This could play an important part in the aviation industry’s target to halve its global carbon footprint by 2050.


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