Europe’s use of coal has been going up, not down, but it’s not all bad news. The trend looks to be short-lived as mammoth wind farms and the DESERTEC international solar project come on line, and now a new EU research consortium based at the University of Aberdeen is looking to use seawater as a source of biofuel. Plenty of that stuff to go around, right?
The consortium is called AccliPhot, and while the basic concept isn’t exactly spanking new (they’re talking about using seawater to grow microalgae, in other words algae biofuel), the use of seawater presents some interesting challenges and opportunities.
The Great Seawater Algae Biofuel Race
The main issue that seawater resolves for algae biofuel is the fact that algae cultivation is water-intensive, and water scarcity has become a critical issue at least as far as fresh water is concerned.
The U.S. has also been checking into seawater algae biofuel, and back in 2009 our sister site Gas2.org reported that California-based Aurora Biofuels was making good progress on an open-pond saltwater algae biofuel pilot project in Florida. It has since moved on to a larger demonstration algae cultivation site in western Australia, also using open ponds.
That solves the freshwater problem but it opens up land use issues. One way to get around that is to grow algae in vat-like bioreactors. These could be sited in derelict industrial properties and other brownfields, and the AccliPhot team plans on taking that approach.
As explained by the University of Aberdeen’s Dr. Oliver Ebenhoeh:
“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…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.”
Specifically, the multidisciplinary team will seek optimal light conditions and other variables that optimize microalgae biofuel yields.
The four-year project is also expected to produce other products including cosmetics, nutritional supplements and antibiotics.
Drinking Our Way Out of Rising Sea Levels
Not that it would have a direct mitigating effect on rising sea levels, but putting seawater to use in new ways could become an important piece of the climate change management puzzle.
Aside from using seawater directly to cultivate algae for biofuel, another track is to desalinate seawater.
Conventional desalination is an energy intensive process, but more energy efficient desalination processes are under development, including one under way at MIT that uses our favorite material, graphene.
Projects like Sahara Forest are also on track to resolving the desalination energy issue by using renewable sources, namely solar power.
Desalination systems could also be designed to run as a multipurpose renewable energy generators. At the University of Colorado – Denver, researchers are developing an integrated system based on microbes that desalinates water (or purifies wastewater), generates electricity and produces hydrogen, which can then be used as fuel.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.