UK report could pave the way for producing sustainable biofuels

18th May 2012

With the increasing appetite for 'green' energytechnologies there are massive opportunities ahead for the UK in producing algal biofuels and other algae products.

But there are relatively few UK companies with the expertise and capacity to cultivate algae for commercial uses, and little is known about the environmental impacts of producing algae products.

A new 'strategy research agenda' report from the Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group (AB-SIG) highlights the benefits of cultivating and using both macroalgae (seaweed) and microalgae (microscopic floating plants such as phytoplankton) in a wide range of products. It also identifies some of the research that should be done to understand and manage the potential impacts on the Earth's environmental ecosystems.

Dr Michele Stanley from the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Director of the AB-SIG, said, "There are a great many market opportunities for algal products, particularly in using natural compounds to develop biofuels and bioenergy products, commodity and speciality chemicals such as those used in fertilizers and cosmetics.

"This is an area which has considerable growth potential for the UK - but it's also important to understand how an increase in algae cultivation will affect both land and water environments and the plants and creatures that currently thrive in them."

The AB-SIG, which is hosted by the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network, suggests that the potential for an energy and bulk chemicals market in the UK will be a long-term project requiring a significant amount of research and development. There are, however, many opportunities for short-term growth.

"Our report looks at both the current markets and future opportunities," said Dr Stanley. "The UK has a strong industrial sector that could expand its current use and development of high-value algal products, such as for the food and feed industry, personal care and nutrition, and using algae as a low-cost wastewater treatment.

"In the longer term, cultivating algae for biofuels will provide an alternative to using land-grown crops, reducing both the threat of increased food costs and the effects on biodiversity, whilst benefiting energy producers, and the transport and aviation industries."

The report answers some of the questions about the best ways to cultivate and harvest the huge amounts of algae needed for commercial development. It considers the possibilities and costs of transferring land-based technologies to freshwater and marine environments. And it looks at the positive and negative impacts on the environment of scaling up algae production, along with recommendations for essential research needed to establish an environmentally sustainable algae-based industry.

The AB-SIG is a two-year initiative funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change partnership.

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