UK Starts World’s Largest Algae Biofuel Initiative

Great Britain hopes that algae-based biofuels can reduce automotive and aviation emissions by 2030, and cut overall emissions by 80% by 2050.


While food-based biofuels are taking the heat for rising food prices, other solutions – like algae – are gaining a more serious following. For example, the UK’s Carbon Trust has announced plans for a project to make algae bio-fuels a commercial reality by the year 2020

But the situation is much more than some “food vs fuel” finger pointing. The fact that transport accounts for one-quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions is major driving factor – pun intended: it’s also the fastest growing cause of carbon emissions in the UK. If the government’s target to reduce overall emissions by 80% by 2050 is to be met, then initiatives like this are crucial.

The UK isn’t the first country to try such a monumental undertaking. There have been major efforts in the past to develop algal biofuels on a commerical scale.  Multilmillion-dollar projects funded by the US government during the 1980s found high biomass yields were definitely possible. The research fizzled out when no one found a way to make the product commercially competitive with the low petro prices for that era. One word – FAIL!

Large scale programs were also tried in Japan, but also to no avail.

The Carbon Trust forecasts that algae-based biofuels could replace more than 70 billion litres of oil every year. They hope to have the initiative in full effect by 2030. In carbon terms, this equates to an annual savings of more than 160m tonnes of CO2 globally!

The first stages of the project include investing in British companies involved in promising algae research.

“You can make algae with a very high oil content and you can make algae that grows very quickly and, at the moment, no one can do both,” said Robert Trezona, R&D director at the Carbon Trust.

It will take a multitude of approaches to fully realize the potential of algae. “There are many more different algae species than there are higher plant species so each algae will require specific effort. Each one will have its own peculiar requirements to figure out how to make them productive, how to get the right strains, how to harvest and process them. We cannot just depend on one or two companies.”

The second phase of the project starts around a year later and involves scaling up the algae-growing operation. The Carbon Trust will build multi-hectare open ponds to act as laboratories for the most promising algae technologies identified from the previous stage. Due to the UK‘s gloomy weather, these will most likely be built abroad. This phase of the project could see the Carbon Trust, and interested partners from industry, investing up to £20m.

“If you I’ve got 12 months a year of warmth and sunshine, your algae farm just produces much more biomass. In a world where costs will be important, UK algae farms would have a real problem,” said Trezona.

Mark Williamson, innovations director at the Carbon Trust, said: “We must find a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to oil for our cars and planes if we are to deliver the deep cuts in carbon emissions necessary to tackle climate change. Algae could provide a significant part of the answer and represents a multibillion-pound opportunity.”

So no need to burn your autos just yet, folks. Well…unless of course McCain wins. I don’t think even algae can save us from Sarah Palin’s energy expertise.

Image source: Jef Poskanzer on Flickr

Jerry James Stone

is a web developer, part-time blogger, and a full-time environmentalist. His crusade for all things eco started twenty years ago when he ditched his meat-and-potatoes upbringing for something more vegetarian-shaped. His passions include cooking, green tech, eco politics, and smart green design. And while he doesn't own a car anymore, he loves to write about those too. Jerry studied at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. During his time there he was a DJ at the campus station KCPR and he also wrote for the campus paper. Jerry currently resides in San Francisco, CA with his cat Lola. You can stalk him on Twitter @jerryjamesstone.