Using algae for fuel is not exactly new news. Over the last couple of decades, significant sums of money have been ploughed into the development of algal-derived biofuel by governments and big oil. Using a mixture of existing strains of microalgae and genetic modification, these microscopic green specks of bioenergy have been cultivated in various open pond setups and bioreactors around the world. However, with all attempts travelling down the same path to FAILURE, critics have concluded that algal-derived biofuels don’t scale.
Predation attacks, population crashes, sensitivity to light, and poor oil yield meant that the numbers simply didn’t add up. The processes developed and strains used were simply not robust enough to scale to anything like the demand required. So, it is understandable to think that algal biofuels are just a waste of time and money.
An irrelevance for future transport modes.
Why Do We Need Biofuels?
Whilst electrification is great for passenger transport and light vehicles, the challenge to decarbonise transoceanic shipping and long-haul aviation is much more complex. The shipping industry is responsible for transporting 80% of the world’s goods. Container ships move for up to 90% of the time and are in service for 20-30 years. It is a sector driven by tight margins, space optimisation, and long-term investment.
Consuming 200 million tonnes of fuel, the shipping industry is forecast to become a $200Bn industry by 2030. With huge amounts of fossil fuel being burnt every day, emitting harmful emissions into our already failing atmosphere, it is an area of huge concern. Whilst shipping only contributes about 3% of global CO2 emissions, research suggests this is set to increase to 10% by 2050.
So it makes sense that it is a space where alternate fuels, including biofuels, are likely to play a significant role.
Low Carbon Fuel Options
Ammonia, methanol, hydrogen, and biofuels are the leading contenders in these hard-to-bate transport sectors. Whilst ammonia and methanol require both vessel and infrastructure change, drop-in biofuels can be added to existing diesel and marine fuel oils. Thus maintaining operational efficiencies and avoiding costly modifications. Drop-in biofuels are blended in ratios as low as 5%, increasing right up to 95%. Thus allowing time for supply chains to build, risks to be assessed and mitigated, and elevated costs absorbed.
In the Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) market, growth is happening but supplies are restricted by feedstock availability. Crop-based feedstocks are prevalent in this area but they result in significant land use change if not regulated. Deforestation, peat land destruction, habitat removal, and competition with agriculture are all associated risks.
But Algal-Derived Biofuels Don’t Scale
So, with critics arguing that algal-derived biofuels don’t scale, why continue to focus on algae?
Why not palm, soy, wheatgrass, or even the holy grail of hydrogen? The reason is that on paper, these tiny green specks have huge potential. Rapid growth, single cell structure, and can be grown in bioreactors with salty water. These characteristics mean you can avoid both direct and indirect land use change. It is the versatility and simplicity that means algae appears to tick the biofuel box. It is after all the fossilised remnants of plant life that is the basis of fossil fuels being burnt today.
So, why keep trying to scale algal biofuel after so many failures? Does it just need more time, (that we don’t have!) or money? Or is it because all previous algal biofuel attempts just used the wrong algae? Working from limited library strains they then tried to genetically engineer a more robust, and reliable species.
Maybe a much more radical approach is required.
John Archer – HutanBio Founder
The Secret Sauce to Scaling Algal Derived Biofuel
Poor biology can only be improved so far through metabolic and genetic engineering. Starting with a strong organism makes the engineering advantage far greater. By going back to first principles and determining the end goal, it becomes much easier to identify the criteria needed to achieve the required outcome.
Algae Selection Criteria
- High resistance to salinity to avoid the use of freshwater
- High tolerance of high temperatures to utilise barren, unproductive land
- Short life cycle for rapid growth to satisfy both the economics and demand
- Robustness to survive or avoid predation and catastrophic failure
- High tolerance to varying light conditions to enable year-round production
- High energy density to make the process viable
Within the field of microalgae, it is believed that there are over a million species, most of which are unknown to science. Only a fraction of these microalgae strains are held in libraries around the world and it is these species that have been used in previous biofuel trials. So, despite the apparent logic of cycling carbon through the biosphere and atmosphere, it seems that only a radically different approach to algal selection and cultivation is required to deliver results that are in line with the powerhouse’s potential.
Isolating the Super Species
At HutanBio we believe that algal biofuel can scale. Having conducted over a decade of research, we believe that previous attempts simply started in the wrong place, with the wrong species. What was needed was a robust organism capable of withstanding the abiotic and biotic stressors encountered in large-scale bio-oil production.
An organism that could switch on feast mode and behave like a frenzied Pacman on steroids. Hovering up carbon dioxide molecules and surviving on sparse food supplies. Gorging rapidly and laying down fat lipid stores to enable survival through leaner times. The ability to protect itself from intense sunlight and thrive in high salinity. All the traits that would by default confirm it was one of the toughest micro-organisms on the planet.
The question is, how do you go about finding an organism that is unknown to science?
The simple answer is you go hunting.
Extreme Bioprospecting for Biofuel Success
To discover a strain of microalgae that is faster, stronger, and more resilient to threats, you need to go to places that express all the hostilities you want your organism to be resilient to. You trawl marine environments and screen over a trillion samples. All in the hope of finding a genus new to science. It is the ultimate needle in a haystack endeavour to seek out the ‘one in a trillion species’ capable of decarbonising a trillion-dollar industry.
The question is, have we found the Spartacus of the algal world, and can we succeed in growing a $ 1 billion climate innovator?
All whilst removing 2 tonnes of carbon from the air for every tonne grown?
We believe that HBx is our best path to decarbonise long-distance transport.
Watch this space as we set about automating and scaling up sustainable green oil farms, bringing life to the desert and barren tropics.