Science

Biomass from algae now a better choice than ever for green energy

By James Maynard , May 27, 2013 01:15 PM EDT
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Biomass from algae can now be produced more efficiently than ever, thanks to a new photobioreactor developed by researchers from the University of Alicante. Although currently too small for commercial use, the technology developed holds promise for future technologies in the near future.

Once produced, algae can be used as a raw material for renewable energy, replacing fossil fuels. Because of this, biomass has fueled a good deal of research.

"The cultivation of microalgae is having a major boom in terms of research in the last 15 years as an alternative energy to oil", Antonio Marcilla Gomis, from the University of Alicante in Spain, said. Gomis led the Research Group in Polymer Processing and Pyrolysis that developed the new photobioreactor.

The new device is designed to produce large quantities of microalgae suitable for energy production, while making more efficient use of carbon dioxide and light than older models. It is also easier to clean than traditional designs.

Researchers believe that the technology developed for the new photobioreactor will be easily scalable, leading the way to new energy-production plants that will produce renewable in energy at commercially-feasible levels. Currently, the biggest challenge with extracting biofuel from algae has been the cost of production.

Even with his new production method, that cost, "is still far from what would be a profitable process comparable to oil," Gomis said. He added that he believed that cost threshold may be overcome in a few years.

Algae is a prime candidate to produce biomass, since unlike corn or other plant-derived sources, it does not require farm land to grow, nor does it need fresh water. After algae is grown, the material can be converted to biodiesel for use in generators or slightly-modified cars. In addition to fuel, microalgae like the ones cultivated by Gomis' team could also become the basis of a new generation of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food. Products produced from such microalgae could include antibiotics, enzymes, antioxidants or vitamins.

One type of this algae, dinoflagellate microalgae, has been found to be particularly suitable for use as a biofuel. After comparing several varieties of microalgae for the suitability for production into fuel, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Institute of Marine Sciences found dinoflagellate grew quickly and produced a large quantity of lipids, required for biofuel production.

Microalgae may not be able to replace fossil fuels quite yet, but this new photobioreactor developed by Gomis and his team brings us one step closer to that goal. 

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