Biofuel has always been in the conversation when it comes to alternative fuels, the biggest problem is finding a large enough supply of plant material to use. The researchers at the University of Alicante may have found the perfect candidate.
A specialist staff at the Research Group in Polymer Processing and Pyrolysis has developed a scalable photobioreactor that could be used to create microalgae directly at the reactor location. The photobioreactor claims to allow mass production, less cleaning and maintenance operations, better use of CO2 and better light transfer to cultivation through the innovative vertical glass tube design. This closed system allows complete nutrient control so optimal algae growth conditions can be maintained. The small footprint of the system makes it viable for individual usage on farms and other independent businesses to create their own biodiesel.
The director of the group, Antonio Marcilla Gomis, in a press release stated, “The subject on the cultivation of microalgae is having a major boom in terms of research in the last fifteen years as an alternative energy to oil.” The advantages of algae are well known, they breed quickly, do not require large land usage, don’t need fresh water to grow, and more importantly they produce an oil that can be converted into biodiesel.
If this new bioreactor is paired with an experimental process that accelerates the ability of microalgae to create oil faster, it may bring the cost of algae derived bio-diesel to a level where it is competitive with other biodiesels, and thus make it commercially viable as well.
Ok, now that we’ve discussed the possibility of microalgae, let’s look at the current reality. Biofuels are a relatively small part of the total alternative energy market, which is currently limiting the number of businesses that are employing it. With the limited interest, it will take a lot more than a “better light bulb” idea to make it mainstream. The cost of the current system, even though it is scalable, will be prohibitive to most small businesses, including farms.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop looking into microalgae as an alternative to other biofuels, just that it will need to be made affordable. This can be done in several ways – through government subsidy, through independent companies partnering with bioreactor producers, through added media coverage, through environmental activist backing and through championing by existing energy giants. The chances of this happening really depend on the profitability of the investment. Will this new photobioreactor bring the cost of algae based biodiesel to a competitive level? Not on its own. But continuing along this path of advances may tweak the production to a level where it is possible – perhaps in the next 5 to 10 years.
What do you think about algae based biodiesel? Is it something that you could see using at your home or business?