5 November 2008

UK: Carbon Trust Wants Commercial Algae Biofuels by 2020

World's leading publicly-funded R&D algae project launched

The Carbon Trust has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with an ambitious mission: to commercialise the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil based oil by 2020. The Algae Biofuels Challenge is a multi-million pound UK R&D initiative that could see the Carbon Trust commit £3m to £6m of funding in the initial stages. The Department for Transport recently announced it will be contributing to the funding of this initiative.

Beyond 2020, algae-based biofuel has the potential to replace a significant proportion of fossil fuel used in road transport and aviation, saving hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon every year globally whilst creating an industry worth tens of billions of pounds. For example, initial forecasts suggest that algae-based biofuels could replace over 70 billion litres of fossil derived fuels used worldwide annually in road transport and aviation by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of over £15 billion.

Dr Mark Williamson, Innovations Director at the Carbon Trust, explains why public investment in algae as an alternative to fossil fuel based oil is vital: “We must find a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to oil for our cars and planes if we are to deliver the deep cuts in carbon emissions necessary to tackle climate change. Algae could provide a significant part of the answer and represents a multi billion pound opportunity. Through the Algae Biofuels Challenge, we will be combining the UK’s undoubted expertise in the area with our unique knowledge and experience of commercialising early stage low carbon technologies, to give us the best possible chance of successfully producing cost-competitive algal biofuel at scale.”

Transport Minister, Andrew Adonis said: “Everyone agrees that to tackle climate change we must develop new and cleaner fuels. But we are clear that biofuels will only have a role to play in this if they are sustainably produced. This project demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that second generation biofuels are truly sustainable – and will further our understanding of the potential for microalgae to be refined for use in renewable transport fuel development, to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

The Carbon Trust is now seeking to recruit cutting edge expertise from algae specialists in the UK, to develop “green oil”. The challenge is to produce this second generation algae-based biofuel cost effectively at scale. If successful, algae could deliver 6 to 10 times more energy per hectare than conventional cropland biofuels, whilst reducing carbon emissions by up to 80% relative to fossil fuels. Also, unlike traditional biofuels, algae can be grown on non-arable land using seawater or wastewater. Therefore, using algae as a biofuel feedstock avoids many of the negative environmental, ecological and social impacts associated with first generation biofuels.

From Research to Open Pond Test and Demonstration Plant
The Algae Biofuels Challenge will accelerate the commercialisation of microalgae bio-oil in two key phases. Phase One will provide grant funding for research across areas including selection of suitable microalgae algae strains for open pond production, maximising algae oil content and biomass yield, maximising solar conversion efficiency, sustained algae cultivation, and design and engineering of mass-culture systems. Phase Two is expected to see the construction of an open pond test and demonstration plant. This plant will provide the vital facilities necessary to continue the research conducted in Phase One and demonstrate production at commercial scale in a manner that can be replicated. To avoid any unnecessary delays in eventual commercialisation the plant is likely to be constructed overseas. This is because the majority of commercial production of algae biofuels is likely to take place in tropical and sub-tropical climates that have plentiful sunlight and temperatures that do not drop too low or vary too much.

Phase 1 of the Algae Biofuels Challenge has opened on 23rd October, with a call for proposals. Applications can be made online.

The Algae Biofuel Challenge

  • Funding is subject to the initiative attracting high quality bids that can be progressed to contract, as well as the approval of the Carbon Trust’s independent Investment Committee to proceed at each stage of the programme.
  • Phase 1 will provide grant funding for research that addresses five specific topics:
    • Isolation and screening of algae strains suitable for open pond mass culture
    • Maximising solar conversion efficiency in mass culture
    • Achieving both high oil content and high productivity in mass culture
    • Sustained algae cultivation in open ponds (resistance to competing organisms, predators and diseases)
    • Design and engineering of cost effective mass culture systems
  • The Carbon Trust’s total R&D budget for Phase 1 of the Algae Biofuels Challenge is between £3m-£6m (depending on the number and quality of applications received). Applicants may apply for grants in the region of £500,000 to address individual topics (or parts/groups of topics) and these may cover up to 100% of eligible costs (research organisations only).
  • Prior to commencing Phase 2, sustainability criteria associated with environmental, ecological, and societal impacts (e.g. land use change, water use, effects on biodiversity, and carbon savings) will be used to select the location for the test and demonstration facility and design it.
  • Phase 2 will focus on scaling up and integrating the processes developed in Phase 1 and testing the research outputs (e.g. algae strains). It will begin one year into Phase 1 and last 5 years. It will involve the construction and operation of a multi-hectare test and demonstration plant in a climatically favourable location, which will provide the vital facilities required to address the challenges of large-scale economic production in open ponds.

Further information
Algae Biofuels Challenge: Call to Action

Source: The Carbon Trust, press release, 2008-10-23.

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