Algae-oil Based Biofuel for Aviation Industry

December 18, 2012 by  
Filed under News

With the increasing demand for a cleaner burning aviation fuel obtained from renewable resources, Airbus recently signed a deal at the 9th China International Air Show in Zhuhai, with Chinese natural gas supplier ENN Group to develop alternative fuels, including fuel derived from algae oil. Extracted, processed and refined from algae, algae oil is considered to be one of the most promising biofuel products being developed for the aviation industry. Depending on the results of a Sino-US feasibility study, a test flight using the biofuel will take place in China in 2013. ENN has the capacity to produce more than ten tons of algae oil-based jet fuel annually.

High oil-output algae was initially considered as an alternative to fossil fuels back in 1978, under the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted research which tested more than 3,000 different types of algae, the conclusion being that algae oil-based fuel could be used in place of fossil fuels for heating homes and running transportation. But when the gas crisis which had resulted in high prices and long queues at the gas pumps passed, and carbon emissions were not an issue back then, the need for alternative fuels was no longer urgent.

Today, several government agencies and private companies are supporting projects to make the production of algae oil-based fuel more commercially viable. Although harvested algae releases CO2 when burned, the CO2 is reabsorbed by the growing algae. Referred to as ‘algaculture’ the commercial cultivation of algae can be carried out on land that would not have been used for agriculture, so the product is not competing for land that could be used for food crops, which is a concern with some other biofuel products. Other advantages of cultivating algae for fuel are that they can be grown in ocean water as well as certain grades of wastewater. Also, they are biodegradable, burn cleaner and will not pose the same level of risk to the environment as fossil fuels if spilled.

A report by the United States Department of Energy has estimated that to produce sufficient algae-based fuel to replace all the petroleum-based fuel in the United States would only require the equivalent of around 15,000 square miles of land, or 0.42 percent of the United States. But, while space is not a problem, cost is, and this is one of the main issues to be addressed. It’s not so much a question of whether the product can be produced and whether it works, but whether it will be commercially viable.