Algae could potentially be used to create more than just biodiesel, if one Australian researcher has his way. Associate Professor Ben Hankamer, from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, is leading an international consortium which is focused on generating fuels such as methane, biodiesel and hydrogen from algae and sunlight.
The Solar Bio-Fuels Consortium is a collaborative research effort by academics from the University of Queensland, as well as numerous universities in Germany and Imperial College in London, England, with the aim of developing methods of renewable biofuel production that do not suffer from the drawbacks of traditional crops such as corn. The group conducts “bio-discovery, structural biology, molecular biology, microbiology, genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabonomics, culture optimization and bioreactor scale-up within a coordinated research program”, according to their website.
Algae naturally capture sunlight and use its energy to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen, however this process is not efficient enough to make it commercially viable.
The Consortium uses this natural reaction, but is developing ways of enhancing its efficiency to a level where the process will be economically viable. This will be done with the help of a $286 000 Australian Research Council grant received last week.
“We have conducted detailed feasibility studies that show that, once key technical milestones are overcome, this technology could achieve economic viability, which will increase further with the introduction of carbon trading schemes and the predicted rise in the oil price,” Associate Professor Hankamer said.
“We have focused on micro-algae as a source of hydrogen because they have several advantages over traditional bio-fuel crops.”
The concept may also prove beneficial for Australia as a desalinising method to provide clean water to drought-stricken parts of the country. Algae that can feed on salt water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be combusted and condensed to clean water without the salt content, combining clean water production with carbon-neutral electricity generation.
The technology could also be used in conjunction with existing coal-fired power plants to absorb much of the carbon dioxide emitted, feeding the algae and effectively “reusing” the greenhouse gas. The algae can then be used to generate hydrogen with no carbon emissions, as well as other biofuels. This process is a substantial improvement from current hydrogen generation methods, which use methane as a feedstock and generate carbon dioxide.
(Source: UQ News)