- Microalgae are a powerhouse of energy with the potential to decouple heavy transport from fossil fuels.
- With year-round growth and the ability to fixate carbon at a rate of almost 2:1, future green farms will provide a clean energy source and clean our atmosphere.
- With properties akin to diesel, bio-oil blends will help decarbonise heavy transport without impacting operational efficiencies.
As heavy transport seeks out ways to reduce emissions, the challenge for many operators is picking the right path. Especially when decisions can result in huge costs, risk downtime, and require extensive retraining. However, as regulations drive industry down the path of decarbonisation and with sustainable fuel supplies still in their infancy, the pressure is on to make a choice. At HutanBio, we believe that algal-derived biofuels can play a huge part in fuelling our future planet.
Sustainable fuel production needs to be stable, cost-effective and reliably scaled. There needs to be confidence in supply, combined with farm-to-bunker provenance. So, let’s break down how algal-derived biofuel can help lower heavy transportation emissions and reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Delve a little deeper into the carbon sequestration capabilities of algae, its energy density and how its cultivation can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions without impacting the local environment.
1. Energy Density of Algal-Derived Biofuel
Ringing in at the top of the list for algal biofuel has to be energy density. With profiles similar to that of diesel, algal bio-oil has the energy density to power huge vessels across oceans without impacting cargo space. By utilising the same fuelling tank space both on land and vessel, operators can expect similar cargo and transit efficiencies. All whilst maintaining standard operating procedures.
Unlike hydrogen, algal biofuel can be stored at normal temperatures and pressures. It requires no cryogenic cooling or compression – both of which require significant energy and volumetric space. It’s safe to handle, non-toxic and doesn’t rust engines over time.
In the short and medium term, the option to maintain legacy equipment whilst reducing emissions will be of huge benefit to an industry governed by efficiencies and tight margins. Especially for the smaller operators who simply don’t have the funds to invest in new equipment. Nor the time to wait for said equipment to be built and installed.
2. Drop-In Biofuel
Crucial for mitigating risk, accelerating implementation and reducing costs, ‘drop in’ sustainable fuels will be critical for a successful decarbonisation plan. These additives can be blended with existing diesel or MGO fuel, in ratios ranging from as low as 5%, increasing up to 95% and have been designed from the outset to blend seamlessly with existing supply chains. Meaning it is a solution that scales with supplies.
As EU ETS and US Federal Advanced Biofuel regulations push operators towards a cliff edge, low carbon fuels that conform to ASTM D975 will become essential in maritime decarbonisation and can be defined as:-
‘liquid bio-hydorcarbons that are funtionally equivalent to petroluem fuels and are fully compatible with exisitng petroleum infrastructure’
3. Algal Carbon Fixation
One of the major benefits associated with energy crops is their ability to ‘fix’ carbon using the power of photosynthesis. Just like rainforests and peatlands, algae ‘farms’ breathe in carbon dioxide. Directly fed from industrial flues and from our choked atmosphere, they convert energy from the sun into chemical energy to lay down fat cells (lipids). As these fast-growing cells get bigger and bigger they reach a point where they are ready to be harvested and oil extraction can commence.
Whilst solvent-based extraction methods (hexane) have been used in the past, sustainable processes avoid the use of fossil fuel derivatives in downstream processing. This results in the separation of a clean, light oil which becomes your fuel. Any residual biomass is then used as clean and nutrient-dense animal feedstock.
Often referred to as a nature-based BECC (Bioenergy Carbon Capture), this type of technology has its doubters. Concerns surrounding land and energy use, biodiversity impact and water usage are high but like all things in life, not all biofuels are created equally. What is imperative is understanding how the biofuel is produced. How land use is managed and the water usage involved with processing.
4. Land Cultivation and Algal-Derived Biofuel
Unlike some energy crops that compete with rainforests, peatland and agriculture, algae can be grown in enclosed bioreactors. Located on barren, unproductive land such as arid deserts and marginal land that has little value.
Agriculture already uses over 50% of the habitable land on Earth and crops account for 15% of that land area. With an ever-increasing population driving the need for more food, protecting fertile growing land will be crucial for a world that needs to meet both its increasing energy and food needs.
5. Water Usage
Although 70% of Earth is covered in water, only a tiny amount (~0.5%) is safe for human consumption. Agriculture already accounts for over 70% fresh water usage so it’s hugely beneficial to develop crops that are adapted to high salinity rates and can use both salt and wastewater.
Whilst not all algae are happy in saline water, with careful selection and genomic engineering, it is possible for these organisms to thrive in salty water.
Algal Derived Biofuel Summary
Algal-derived biofuel is not a silver bullet for all transportation. It is, after all, a hydrocarbon that needs to be burnt to release the stored chemical energy. But it can support the decarbonisation efforts for heavy transport. The hard-to-abate maritime industry and long-haul aviation sector. What is crucial when selecting a sustainable fuel pathway is understanding the full life cycle.
Its impact on land use, water and downstream processing.
At HutanBio we select high energy algal organisms which have the potential to draw down almost double the amount of carbon produced during use. That means for every tonne of bio-oil, nearly 2 tonnes of carbon are removed from the atmosphere, making it a carbon-negative fuel. When managed correctly, these green farms add value to unproductive land, protect scarce fresh water supplies and contribute to energy independence. Bringing jobs and economic wealth to areas of the world affected the most by climate change, where rainfall is low and sunlight high.