Jan 262012
WUHAN, CHINA - AUGUST 20:  A dead fish floats ...

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Using algae to produce sustainable biofuel could become a commercially viable option

New production method promises to save cost and energy as Etihad becomes latest airline to trial biofuels

Using algae to produce sustainable biofuel could become a commercially viable option after scientists claimed to have developed a new cost-effective harvesting method.

One of the major stumbling blocks to the technology, which promises to yield greener fuels without impacting food production, has been removing water from the algae to allow it to be processed effectively.

But by creating a cheap method of producing microbubbles that allow algae particles to float to the surface of the water, researchers at the University of Sheffield believe they can make harvesting easier and save biofuel producers time and money.

The system also uses 1,000 times less energy to produce the bubbles than previous methods and could be installed at much lower cost, professor Will Zimmerman, who led the research, claimed in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

The research builds on earlier work by the team at Sheffield, which allowed producers to grow algal crops more rapidly and more densely.

“We thought we had solved the major barrier to biofuel companies processing algae to use as fuel when we used microbubbles to grow the algae more densely,” professor Zimmerman said.

“It turned out, however, that algae biofuels still couldn’t be produced economically, because of the difficulty in harvesting and dewatering the algae. We had to develop a solution to this problem and once again, microbubbles provided a solution.”

Algae-derived fuels are thought to be highly suitable for industries such as aviation, which is looking to lower its environmental impact with the advent of emissions trading in the EU.

Qantas and the US Navy are both experimenting with algae-based fuels, which according to advocates could produce the huge quantities needed to decarbonise aviation without affecting agricultural output.

Fuels produced from waste have also proved popular, with airlines including Lufthansa, British Airways, United and Virgin exploring the concept, while Etihad, national airline of the UAE, piloted the Gulf’s first biofuels flight earlier this week.

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