In 10 to 15 years' time, sustainable and viable biofuels could be produced from cultivated algae. This picture is given by Rene Wijffels, professor of Bioprocess Technology, and Maria Barbosa, researcher at Food & Biobased Research, in an article published in the latest issue of Science magazine.
Algae are by far the ideal candidates for supplying sustainable energy. They can be cultivated in closed systems unsuitable for agriculture and which have very little biodiversity, such as desserts. As such, algae cultivation, unlike the cultivation of oil palms, does not require areas of rain forest to be cleared. Furthermore, algae require very little sweet water. To produce a litre of biodiesel from algae, only 1.5 litres of water are needed, while agriculture crops need 10,000 litres of water for every litre of biodiesel produced. Moreover, algae produce much more oil compared to traditional fatty agriculture crops. 'Algae is sometimes half oil in its composition', says Wijffels. 'As a result, you can harvest about six times as much oil from them as from oil palms.' Besides a big oil supply, algae also provide valuable by-products such as high quality proteins, vitamins and minerals. 'If algae are actually used to produce the needed 0.4 billion cubic metres of diesel, we would get much more proteins as a by-product than we can ever consume: forty times more than the amount of soya protein which we currently import into the EU', says Wijffels. 'As a result, the entire 'food for fuel' debate could take on another perspective.'
AlgaePARC, the Wageningen test facility for algae cultivation, will, from next year onwards, concentrate on how to improve cultivation technologies. After the pilot phase, which will last about five years, the research team, led by Barbosa, will implement the best technology on a large scale. 'We will keep a close watch throughout the development phase and continually monitor the ecological impact of the cultivation, concludes Wijffels.