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The Algae Acceleration

Algae may become the biofuel to replace fossil fuels as a primary source for the automotive industry.

As highspeed trains look to hydrogen as a sustainable source, many dominant car manufacturers including Mazda and Honda are funding research into the cultivation of algae as a biofuel and are keen to get prototypes on the road in the near future. The goal is a sustainable – and scalable – commercially available biofuel to meet the growing demands for fossil fuel alternatives and environmental regulations.

The reason algae is so useful is that it is capable of converting sunlight, CO2 and water into lipids; fat which is energy rich. These lipids can then be extracted and refined into efficient and clean biodiesel. The concept of algae as a biofuel is not new and companies specifically engineering algae have existed for over ten years. The leading organisations are Algenol, a global industrial biotechnology company first formed in 2006 and based in Florida; AlgaEnergy, a pioneer in microalgae biotechnology since 2007 with a commercial production facility in southern Spain; and Euglena, the company planning to become the first company to provide biofuel for commercial flights by 2010 in Japan. In 2009, the Algaeus – a plug-in Prius hybrid – became the world’s first vehicle powered by an algae-based fuel from Sapphire Energy. It ran on a 5% combination of algae fuel but was a successful demonstration of moving towards greener and more sustainable fuels for vehicles.

Since then, the biggest organisations in the automotive industry have shown an extraordinary drive to support research and adopt microalgae biotechnology. For example, the objective of Mazda’s “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030” Initiative is to promote wide-spread adoption of biofuels from microalgae with the aim of reducing average CO2 emissions by first halving the levels recorded in 2010 by 2030 and then by 90% of those same levels by 2050. Mazda currently supports research from Tokyo Institute of Technology and Hiroshima University in Japan.

Although the automotive industry is clearly pioneering the technology and committing to making algae a viable alternative to fossil fuels the benefits of algae are not restricted to one industry. Exxon, a dominant company in the oil and gas industry, are working with Synthetic Genomics to produce biofuel from algae on a huge scale. Exxon predicts it could make 10, 000 barrels a day within the next few years. So whilst the outlook on climate change and environment can often appear bleak, this adoption of biofuel from algae signifies a clear and measurable rate of progress which is only accelerating.