by Prof. Aecio D’Silva
Inarguably, we need a “Super Algae”
Without a doubt, Algae are the perfect biofuels feedstock. However, despite this truth, in my opinion it really depends also on the progress of Algae genomics to make algae biofuels a commercial reality in the near future. Unless we have winning “super-algae”, the rest of the process, i.e., efficient farming, low-cost nutrient sources, cost-effective harvesting methods, economic oil extraction and profitable processing techniques is only of secondary importance.
In recent years, our research team has been focusing on developing cost-effective, fast-growing, high lipid and/or carbohydrate content algae. The lack of these selected traits is the major stumbling block keeping algae from being a major contender in the biofuels world.
Just as geneticists did with corn, sugar-cane and soybean, we must develop algae strains with these desired traits and they need to be made available to the biofuels industry soon…
World-wide is estimated that there are more than 65,000 wild type algal species of which about 25,000 are freshwater. Currently, only part of these species is known. Barely about a dozen algae genomes have been sequenced.
Practically speaking, we find ourselves at the same point in the domestication-selection processes of algae today as we were with corn some hundreds years ago. And while there are huge opportunities for new discoveries within the naturally existing strains, it is unlikely that we will find one strain that has everything we want that will grow everywhere we need it to.
This means that we need to genetically modify the best strains to produce high levels of desired molecules that will fit harvest and fuel recovery requirements. And as I mentioned before, this must happen rather quickly. In reality, we will need to pack hundreds of years of select breeding or intelligent design into a few short years or less.
While some may feel uncomfortable at the thought of genetic modification, it is important to remember that no commercial system uses wild type organisms. In the agricultural world, all large scale production depends on species that are genetically modified, whether naturally and artificially.
As a feedstock, the crude oil harvested from fast growing algae can be converted into biojet fuel, gasoline, biodiesel, heating oil and refined chemicals (i.e bio-plastic and solvents). The yields of refined fuels obtained by catalytic cracking of algal hydrocarbons are comparable to yields obtained from petroleum.
After extracting oil, Algae biomass by its turn can be converted into ethanol, methanol, biobutanol, hydrogen, other alcohol based fuel, pharmaceutical, nutriceuticals, and cosmetics products. The list goes on. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in addition to biofuels, Algae also functions as a strong bio-remediation tool.
Inarguably, we need a “super algae”—Algae that grow quickly, contain high lipids and/or high carbohydrates, and are resistant to different environmental conditions, including light intensity, temperature, pH, salinity, etc.
In response to this need, our team has been growing enhanced algae strains (indoors and outdoors) using as media sewage-treated water effluent with very positive results and high productivity. We must provide asap a much-needed algae genomics solution to the Biofuels Industry.
(Comments Published at WSJ Blogs by Prof. Aecio D’Silva about the article: Airbus and Algae: Why Biofuels Won’t Cut It)