Growing algae for biofuel

"It's exciting because it's achievable," says Peter van den Dorpel, as he looks over the big plastic tubes full of various shades of green algae. His company has designed, produced and marketed the crop in its bid to be the first to provide the aviation industry with a feasible alternative to fossil fuel.

We are standing in an enormous greenhouse near Roosendaal in the south of The Netherlands. Most of the greenhouse is growing tomatoes with impressive efficiency. One corner is dedicated to the cultivation of algae - in a similarly efficient way, according to Mr van den Dorpel.

"It's actually like growing tomatoes; the algae need similar things," he says.This crop uses the warmth, light and a steady feed of carbon dioxide and nutrients to reproduce faster than any other plant on earth. The amount of algae in these tubes can double daily. And that is both the attraction and the problem with algae as a commercial crop.

What Algae-Link's system claims to crack, possibly for the first time, is the problem of clogging. A patented internal cleaning system keeps the set-up harvesting twenty-four hours a day.Once the cells of the algae are split into their constituent parts (an established science with all biofuel crops but a more secretive part of the process in this case), the green mass can be sold as feed for fish and oyster farms and the vegetable oil can be processed into engine fuel.

What will be crucial is to produce the raw material in sufficient quantities. Cynics are saying a land mass anything up to the size of Ireland would have to be devoted to algae production to fuel the world's civil aviation industry. But that may not be out of the question. With algae cultivation in tubes, farming is feasible on otherwise unusable land; there are already projects up and running in the Gobi desert of northern China.

Source: 13 October 2008