Biofuels EU's AccliPhot project will develop algae biofuel from seawater

Published on February 8th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


EU Is Burning More Coal, Looks To “Burn” Seawater Instead

February 8th, 2013 by  

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.

EU's AccliPhot project will develop algae biofuel from seawater

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 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.

Image (cropped): Seawater by Mados

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Tina Casey

    Thanks for your feedback, all. Just goes to show that geopolitics isn’t just a petroleum thing. Last time I checked, though, some investors had dropped out, others are interested, including China. As for biomass efficiency, what we’re looking at is a far more diverse, distributed future energy landscape, so biomass will not be the best solution across the board, but it could prove to be the best available solution in particular circumstances.

  • Hans

    The problem with any form of biomass is its poor efficiency in creating electric or chemical energy from the energy present in sunlight. If you use photovoltaics you will get at least a hundred times more usable energy from the same surface area.

  • Better check the story on DESERTEC. Last time I heard, Bosch followed Siemens out the door from the project. And even if the project is not dead, they’re aiming for appreciable numbers of generation…in 2050. So the use of word “short-lived” here might be a bit of an overstatement.

    The biofuel side of the article is interesting, though.

    Kind regards,
    Kimi Arima
    Wärtsilä Power Plants

    • Bob_Wallace

      I suspect you are right, as far as the North Africa part of DESERTEC goes.

      My guess is that the unrest in northern African countries is making Europeans uneasy about starting large projects there until there is more political stability.

      My bet would be that much of the solar that was going to NA is going to end up in southern Europe.

      • This is what I think too. Spain,

        Greece and Italy have very good solar resources and Turkey may be an acceptable target country as well.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Bulgaria has a very high amount of solar per capita. Solar in Bulgaria and Turkey could feed into the rest of Europe to help knock down the morning peak.

          Solar from Span and Portugal could help with the late afternoon peak.

          A good cross-Europe HVDC line could carry Turkey/Bulgarian solar across Europe to Spain/Portugal in the morning and reverse the feed in the afternoon. The ability to move power over a wide range drastically cuts the need for storage.

          • Interesting that you should mention the east-west interconnection. Many assume north-south to be the obvious solution, but in fact, and as you pointed out, east-west has considerably more appeal, in terms of both solar and wind (more variance between east-west than north-south, I understand).

            Of course, the challenge in that concept is to cultivate a market in Eastern Europe. Currently, very little buying power for surplus electricity in Bulgaria, Romania, etc.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Bulgaria has installed a massive amount of solar for a country its size. They’re in the top ten overall and have something like 4x as much solar per capita as any other country. Germany is in a distant second place.

            One would think that countries east of Europe would be interested in selling solar into Europe to service its early morning demand. And then they could get power when their sunshine starts to fade.

          • That’s a pretty neat idea. Scale could be a problem, meaning that Germany’s morning peak is probably more than the Eastern European grid could handle for now. But yes, I think that’s a lot better concept than just balancing wind in the north-south direction.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We ship coal, oil and natural gas across continents and oceans. We didn’t build the infrastructure needed over night.

            Over years we can build infrastructure to move massive amounts of electricity if that turns out to be the least expensive way to power our grids. In general, the wider we cast our energy gathering net, the less storage we need to make things work.

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