|Microalgae may be the world’s next top biofuel source. (Photo: aydinmutlu/istockphoto)|
Algae for biofuel
Step aside, soybeans and sunflowers. This slimy stuff could someday power the world.
By Sarah Leavitt
When most people think of algae,
they picture a slimy bog, thick
with green goo. But not Université de
Sherbrooke’s Marc Veillette. Where others
see sludge, he sees the future of fuel.
“I think that microalgae could be a real
sustainable solution to producing
replacement fuel for the increasingly
expensive and dwindling fossil fuels such
as diesel,” says the chemical engineering
Others think so too. In 2007, the
Canadian government decided to invest
up to $1.5 billion over nine years as part
of the ecoENERGY for Biofuels Initiative.
In 2010, an algae biofuel project at the
National Research Council’s Institute for
Marine Biosciences, in Halifax, was
launched to bring specific focus to transforming
microalgae into biodiesel.
These decisions — which Veillette says
have brought much-needed attention to
the kind of work he’s doing and, in turn,
make obtaining research grants a real
possibility instead of a faint hope —
marked the beginning of a shift away
from other, less sustainable biodiesel
sources, such as sunflowers and soybeans.
Production of those plants drives up food
prices, uses valuable agricultural space
and creates land pollution, while transforming
the plants into a usable fuel
requires significant amounts of water,
pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Veillette believes that microalgae —
taken, in this instance, from the St.
Lawrence River — are a more sustainable
option. Because microalgae grow in water,
valuable agricultural land isn’t used.
Microalgae also absorb phosphates and nitrates (pollutants caused mostly by the
use of chemical fertilizers) as well as carbon
dioxide, using them as nutrients for
its growth. And, perhaps most crucially,
microalgae can double their biomass in
only 24 hours, allowing for multiple harvests
over a short period of time.
Veillette gets his algae (packed in test
tubes and sent via mail) in bulk from
a research team at Université du Québec
à Rimouski. The dark brown paste has
the consistency of jam and contains oils
called lipids. Veillette’s task is to experiment
with the method of extracting the
lipids to produce a biodiesel that meets
regulatory standards. He hopes that
microalgae biodiesel can eventually be
produced on a large enough scale to
replace the use of petroleum in cars,
boats and planes but notes that those
days are still far away.
“There’s a lot of research going on in
labs right now, but not a lot of industrialscale
projects,” he says. “It might take 10
to 15 years before the pilot projects
become bigger and the amount of biodiesel
coming from microalgae is sufficient
for widespread use.”