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Algae-Based Fuel as the New Kerosene in Aircraft Transportation

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

by Edward Piers-Moreno Easton


Have you heard about third generation renewable technologies?

You should be aware that third-generation technology must be accessible before the end of the petrol era. According to the University of Finland, and the Norwegian government, which gets 97% of its power from renewable sources, the third generation of renewable energy is a technology that will lead our future in electricity production.

One of the most significant third-generation technologies being tested is algae as an alternative to kerosene (aviation fuel). Kerosene emits more greenhouse gasses than most other fuels, amounting to more than 12% of global carbon dioxide emissions. A comprehensive study of technical data collected by The New York Times demonstrated how cheaper flights have significantly increased the demand for aviation, causing commercial airlines to become the fastest expanding transport industry. Total oil extraction has risen by 4%, and experts estimate that in 45 years there will be no more oil left to extract as everything will become reserved. This has sparked considerable pleas to powerful world leaders, as 45 years from now the newest and coming generations will have to save every single drop of their petrol.

The innovative use of microalgae as biofuel energy is the answer offered for the coming third generation. Algae production integrates different challenges, environmental concerns, and a new sustainable ecosystem. Nonetheless, when compared to other biomaterials such as corn or starch, algae offer far better benefits despite being more costly to collect.

The motivation for biofuel algae technology is obvious: zero greenhouse gas emissions as compared to fossil fuels and the potential for bio-based fuels. This will enable the completion of a net-zero carbon cycle through photosynthesis to provide worldwide aviation biofuel. Algenol Biotech Ltd. provides a more comprehensive insight into the process of hydrogenation (conversion of bio-oil produced from algae into hydrocarbons) and how ‘algae-based fuel’ is a more achievable goal than those mentioned at COP26 to decarbonise and reach net-zero by 2050.

Algae has been theoretically analysed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 90% by replacing kerosene with microalgae-derived bio-jet fuel in commercial aircraft flights. Several airlines have signed worldwide biofuel offtake agreements, along with fifteen airports worldwide providing aviation biofuels and SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) – a kerosene-algae blend which has already been used on over 250,000 commercial flights.

How is algae industrially produced in order to overcome sustainability challenges?

The process begins in the environment of an open pond, where algae grows in either salt or freshwater. In essence, algae absorb solar energy in a process known as photosynthesis, which involves the absorption of light rays by chloroplast within the seaweed. Moreover, algae ‘absorbs’ carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which enhances algae growth and contributes to the planet's decarbonisation. Algae also absorbs waste-based nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers, which would normally harm water bodies and create dead zones. Absorbing the harmful nutrients allows algae to grow proteins more quickly, which will encourage algal growth for jet fuels while also cleaning waterways.

After the development period, half of the algae's water mass will evaporate by using one of the following methods: centrifugal drying or boiling. The water, which is drained continues its process as diesel, which will be collected and processed to generate fuels with a lower density.

In its final stage, microalgae will be transported to a pressing, chemical solvent, or sound wave system to break down the cellular wall, allowing the oil to be released. Hydrolysate separation allows the resultant product to be cut into a kerosene carbon structure (C12H26), which can power the engine of a Boeing 777X.

What role does algae play in the future of clean, sustainable energy?

In North America, they have planned huge bioreactors that will use 39,000m2 of algae to fuel the entire nation, and once processed, the fuel will be piped through the systems that previously carried petrol throughout the globe, exporting algae-fuel internationally. As different modes of transportation including aircrafts and boats turn to blue-algae as an alternative renewable biofuel, electricity will become more affordable.

According to a life-cycle analysis fossil fuels will be depleted by 2040 and renewable energy will be the only source of energy. Scientists have identified that algae can be used to obtain all the energy required for combustion in commercial airplanes, and therefore, have prioritized its study and testing in laboratories. In contrast to starch and corn, which produce a low energy diesel fuel, blue-green algae can grow and flourish in saline environments, indicating that it does not need to be stored where freshwater supplies reside. Therefore, it can grow far from communities, where freshwater is scarce.

The only drawback of algae as a biofuel for jet aircrafts relates to its acidity, which in the long-term will corrode pistons and damage the inner components of a conventional aircraft engine. Developing a bio-algae that does not damage the most advanced aircraft engines will reduce the cost of algae production by removing the need for an extraction procedure to remove the acids.

Finally, a rising population and an anticipated 81 million people born each year is prompting a shift in our consumption patterns. If we do not take these matters into our own hands, we will risk ending up with an oil shortage, similar to the one in 1973, when fuel prices surged and resulted in physical riots to obtain petrol.

The environmental advantages of algae bio-jet fuel outweigh the disadvantages. When blue-green algae reach a worldwide industrial processing level, the biofuel production system will cut more than 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions from the aviation sector and become affordable enough to replace the role of gasoline in the transportation sector. However, at present, algae is still in the early phases of investment. Major oil corporations need to get involved to close the carbon cycle to make a world connected by clean and sustainable transport.


A new generation of aviation kerosene is here.



References


[1] Atag.org. 2022. Facts & figures. [online] Available at: <https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html#:~:text=The%20global%20aviation%20industry%20produces,carbon%20dioxide%20(CO2)%20emissions.&text=Aviation%20is%20responsible%20for%2012,to%2074%25%20from%20road%20transport.> [Accessed 25 March 2022].


[2] Mountford, H., Waskow, D., Gonzalez, L., Gajjar, C., Cogswell, N., Holt, M., Fransen, T., Bergen, M. and Gerholdt, R., 2022. COP26: Key Outcomes From the UN Climate Talks in Glasgow. [online] World Resources Institute. Available at: <https://www.wri.org/insights/cop26-key-outcomes-un-climate-talks-glasgow> [Accessed 26 March 2022].


[3] Markets &amp; PoliciesMarkets for Biofuels Standards Financing and investment for biofuels Policy &amp; Legislation about Bioenergy Consultations for biofuels EU and Member States Strategies, i., EU and Member States Strategies, i., Observatory, S., Observatory, E. and Observatory, E., 2022. Air. [online] Etipbioenergy.eu. Available at: <https://www.etipbioenergy.eu/value-chains/products-end-use/end-use/air> [Accessed 26 March 2022].


[4] Algenol Biotech. 2022. Sustainable Products | Algenol Biotech. [online] Available at: <https://www.algenol.com/sustainable-products/?category=ndustrials> [Accessed 27 March 2022].


[5] Theseus.fi. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.theseus.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/498200/The%20current%20state%20of%20using%20sustainable%20aviation%20fuel%20in%20Finland%2C%20Norway%20and%20Sweden.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y> [Accessed 28 March 2022].

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