Sea Water Could Hold Key to Fuel Demands

Thursday, 07 February 2013

The answer to society’s fuel demands could literally be all around us– in fact it makes up two thirds of the planet’s surface.

An international research team led by the University of Aberdeen, with partners including Oxford Brookes University, are hoping to make biofuels out of microscopic algae found in the world’s oceans and seas. 

Currently biofuels are created from crops and land-based vegetation – something project coordinator Dr Oliver Ebenhoeh, from the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Complex Systems and Mathematical Biology, says is not sustainable.

He said: “We need to find efficient ways of supplying our energy demand in a way that doesn’t compete for valuable resources like arable land or fresh water. We can’t just put corn in your car’s gas tank because it’s being used to feed millions already - it won’t be sustainable. This is one of the key motivations to look into marine microalgae.

“Cultivating algae using water that can’t be used for irrigation, like salt water or brackish water, makes sense because it’s so vast – it’s all around us and there’s no competition to use the land to grow other things.”

The AccliPhot project is due to run for four years and is backed by €4million of EU funding and involves 12 partners from across the continent.

The team will try to understand more fully how plants and microalgae respond to changes in light and other conditions and use that information to make new products.

Dr Mark Poolman, Senior Research Fellow and principle investigator of the Oxford Brookes component, commented: “This is an extremely exciting project bringing together a unique group of scientists with expertise covering theoretical and experimental and industrial scale biology.

“A particular feature of this project is the fact that we will be training early career scientists, all of whom will be spending time learning at other partner institutions, not just the their host institution. Two of these will be employed at Oxford Brookes for three years each as part of the project.

“As well as addressing specific problems concerning biofuel production, the potential scope is more wide ranging, as we expect techniques developed as a result of this collaboration to be applicable to many other areas of applied biochemistry, and by the end of the project have a core of young scientists fully trained to use them.”

Whilst the main focus is on biofuels the study could also yield breakthroughs in antibiotics, nutritional supplements or even produce chemical compounds used in the cosmetics industry.

Micro algae eat nothing but carbon dioxide, light and some minerals. Cells of microalgae typically measure between a few to several hundred micrometers across and can be grown in vast numbers in giant 10,000 litre water tanks called photo-bioreactors. So if they can be successfully cultivated to make biofuels they could contribute hugely to the planet’s energy consumption.