Hi again! Sarah here (Communications Officer) and I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore some of the over-lap between my Masters and the work of the Trust. If you follow our blog regularly (which I’m sure you do, we’re an interesting bunch) then you might have read Miles’ blog last week “Let them drink vodka – biofuels, intensification and global food needs”. The debate over biofuels and their role in our future attempts to meet fuel demands, reduce carbon emissions, and increase food production, is a currently pretty hot topic in the media. Everyone seems to be looking at biofuels in much the same way as they would a jar of Bovril – they either love them or hate them. But there is another possible view to take – one which supports the exploration of the potential of 3rd generation biofuels.
1st generation biofuels (derived from sources like starch, sugar, animal fats and vegetable oil) are understandably a little hard to swallow, as they interact directly with food security, and according to a report by the OECD “the amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol, just once, could feed a person for a year”.
Similarly, although 2nd generation or “advanced” biofuels (made from lignocellulosic biomass or woody crops, agricultural residues or wastes) do not directly interact with food security, they are often seen as impacting upon food production indirectly, competing for land and water. There may well be room to further develop 2nd generation biofuels from agricultural residues and food wastes, given that the we throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food from our homes every year in the UK. But by this point the food thrown has already caused the emission of CO2 during its production, transport etc. – not to mention it costs the average family £680 per year! And this is aside from the impact and pressures of intensive agriculture on biodiversity and semi-natural grasslands. Although creating biofuels from wastes is definitely better than just sending them to landfill – 2nd generation biofuels are still not the ideal way of reducing carbon emissions, meeting fuel demands and helping increase food production.
So what about 3rd generation biofuels, such as algae? The beauty of algae (both macro, such as seaweed, and the micro kind that makes your fish tank dirty) is that we don’t currently rely on it as a food source, it grows quickly, and won’t compete for land or water – as it can even be grown using salt water or waste waters from industry. Production cost is fairly low, high yields are easy to obtain, and there is potential for producing almost 30 times more energy per acre than 1st generation biofuels. There are hundreds of usable types of algae, each with different oil content and molecular structures.
Obviously we still have a long way to go – and there are many potential problems. Although it doesn’t look like an algae photobioreactor would require more room than, say, an anaerobic digester currently does; and algae can be grown on marginal land, brown field sites , deserts, or on land already used for industry…the photobioreactors do have to go somewhere. Obviously, prime location for growing algae is areas with a lot of sunshine, which brings international relationships into the equation and there will still be a waste product, which may or may not turn out to also be a useful biofuel. But these obstacles are no harder to over-come than the global impacts of current fuel sources.
New literature about the potential of algae comes out pretty much daily and there is a great deal of hype in the bioenergy sector – but just imagine the potential. If algae really did turn out to be the Holy Grail of biofuels – how many problems would it solve? So whilst I agree that 1st and 2nd generation biofuels have their problems – I have no trouble supporting the investigation of the potential of 3rd generation biofuels…
In fact, I find the idea that something as “simple” as algae could save the day for mankind quite charming.