The fastest growing plants in the world, microalgae are photosynthetic organisms which convert carbon dioxide, alongside sunlight and nutrients, into lipids. They produce more biomass per unit area than agricultural crops. Grown in ponds or translucent containers known as photobioreactors, cultivation does not take up arable land. For these reasons, algae are thought to be a promising feedstock for the creation of biofuels. High fuel prices and increased awareness of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have heightened interest in the algae industry.
In addition to lipids for biofuels, certain algae species also contain hydrocarbons, components of pharmaceutical and nutritional interest, and substances used in production of supermaterials. Some argue that the co-production of such products is necessary to make algae operations cost-effective.
Critical challenges for the algae industry are the development of cost-efficient production systems, and harvesting and extraction systems. Other challenges include the continuing availability of low-cost feedstock, as companies begin to make use of previously unused or infrequently used by-products such as carbon dioxide, waste water and waste heat. Most companies are in the pre-commercialization or commercialization phase; i.e. discovering how to make systems economically feasible and competitive with current fuel alternatives.
Visibility of algae technology is increasing, with the first algae-powered building beginning operation in early 2013, in Germany. The building has algae-filled panels on sun-facing sides, covering 200 square meters; cultivated material is burned in a generator inside and used to heat water.
Research programs worldwide are developing technology to expand algal production systems to industrial scale. Large-scale algae production is projected to become economically viable between 2020 and 2025.
- i Wijffels & Barbosa, 2010
- ii Bohutskyi & Bouwer, 2013; Borowitzka & Moheimani, 2013
- iii Mtezger & Largeau, 2005
- iv Ibañez & Cifuentes, 2013; Menetrez, 2012
- v e.g. Foley, Beach & Zimmerman, 2011
- vi Algae Biomass Organization, 2013
- viii Wijffels & Barbosa, 2010
- ix Wijffels & Barbosa, 2010; Algae Biomass Organization, 2013
Article contributed by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre. Illustration by Meaghan C Kehoe.