Algae biofuel production not sustainable, argues marine biologist

Algal biofuel production is “neither environmentally nor commercially sustainable”, claims a marine biologist from Swansea University in an article appearing on The Conversation.

Professor Kevin Flynn claims the hype surrounding the potential of third-generation algal biofuel has been ‘misplaced’. He notes that millions of dollars and euros have been spent on trying to make algal fuels work, in particular on refining the engineering process.

“The attainable production levels are a fraction of those that were claimed. The amount of biofuel produced from prolonged culture of algae in pilot-scale systems is actually not too dissimilar from those of terrestrial plants: around 5,000 to 10,000 litres per hectare per year.”

Flynn highlights the realities of biochemistry as the main reason for his view on biofuel production.

“Simulations of microalgal biofuel production show that to approach the 10% of EU transport fuels expected to be supplied by bioofuels, ponds three times the area of Belgium would be needed. And for the algae in these ponds to produce biofuel, it would require fertiliser equivalent to 50% of the current total annual EU crop plant needs,” he writes in the article in The Conversation.

“Ironically, such ponds would also need to be located near heavy industry which produces CO₂ to provide the level required by the microalgae for photosynthesis.”

 

Research

Earlier this year, Flynn co-authored a study on the physiology limits to commercially viable photoautrophic production of microalgal biofuels. Among other things, the research aimed to determine the bounds of plausible long-term biofuels production.

Through a range of simulations, the study ultimately concluded that solar-powered cultivation of natural algae strains exclusively for biofuel production to the level required to make a significant impact on fossil usage, was neither commercially viable nor capable of producing the requisite amounts of energy.