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Algae to fuel aviation? -

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Algae to fuel aviation?

Can algae be a successful fuel source? For aircraft? Algae captures carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere rather than releasing carbon trapped in fossil fuels. But considering fertilizer and
other inputs, do the sums add up? Is there an overall saving? Naomi Fowler reports.

Transcript

Robyn Williams:This week the aviation industry said it would cut its emissions of CO2 eventually in
half, and one way is by using new fuels from plants. Naomi Fowler reports.

Naomi Fowler: It sounds ideal; algae, the world's most abundant form of plant life that literally
eats up CO2. They can double their mass several times a day. If they're ever farmed successfully
they apparently won't compete with food production, water supplies, or contribute to deforestation.
The boss of Continental Airlines thinks he's onto a winner.

Lawrence Kellner: These are drop-in fuels, meaning that you don't need to change the aircraft, you
don't need to change the engines, we don't need to move to a new technology.

Naomi Fowler: But environmentalist Jeff Gazzard of the Green Skies Alliance is unimpressed with
this latest test flight.

Jeff Gazzard: All today's flight proves is that you can burn it in engines. There's nothing about
production plants, there's nothing about the source, there's nothing about how soon and how much
it's going to cost to make 238 million tonnes of fuel, which is currently the amount of kerosene
that the world's commercial jet fleet consumes annually.

Naomi Fowler: And it's bringing this product to market that's defeated scientists who've worked on
algae for fuel in the past. The US government invested heavily in algae oil research in the 1980s.
They closed it down when their scientists concluded production levels were too low to make it
economically viable. But Peter van den Dorpel of Algae-Link says things have changed since then.

Peter van den Dorpel: The reason that 20 or 30 years ago this attention dropped was that the yield
per hectare was totally out of reach. I think we have created three technology breakthroughs which
have resulted now in productivity per hectare between 20 and 50 times higher than it used to be.
All of a sudden the economic models make sense.

Naomi Fowler: Chief scientist for Greenpeace Doug Parr is sceptical about the claims some companies
are making about the amounts of oil they can produce.

Doug Parr: If you're trying to run a company on equity finance, you have to keep giving promising
outlooks to keep raising the revenue, and it's not actually in your interest to show data if that
data undermines the case about the speed of delivery into the marketplace. We're not against algae,
far from it, we really would like to see it work. But we have to be sceptical about the claims made
by corporations who might have other agendas than saving the planet.

Naomi Fowler: Bioengineering scientist Dr Krassen Dimitrov says he's done the sums and he thinks
it's not a good investment. According to him, the laws of basic thermodynamics still mean the
transformation of solar energy into biomass through photosynthesis can only ever operate within
certain limits.

Krassen Dimitrov: Photosynthesis only utilises about 40% of the solar spectrum. Of this 40% only
27% can theoretically be converted into biomass. But that has never been achieved, and there are
all these companies that are trying to get closer and closer to this theoretical limit, but no
matter what you do, that gives you the thermodynamic boundary of what you can achieve.

Naomi Fowler: Therefore, he says, some of the yields of algae oil per hectare some companies claim
they can now produce continue to contradict these simple laws of thermodynamics. The US
government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory also concluded that using closed containers to
produce the algae were too expensive to build and operate. I asked chemical engineer Dr Hellgardt
of Imperial College if he thought progress on huge open-pond systems might fare any better.

Klaus Hellgardt: You can ask yourself whether that is the best way of harnessing solar energy.
Compare it to solar energy, that may be one or two orders of magnitudes larger than what you would
need.

Naomi Fowler: You would need such a staggeringly large area to even start trying to service global
needs. This is a big problem, isn't it.

Klaus Hellgardt: It is a big problem if you look at the overall efficiencies that are involved.
They are of course slightly more complex because it is all well and good to grow the algae, you
actually then have to invest a lot in actually extracting the oils and then transforming the oils
into something that you can actually really use.

Naomi Fowler: Peter van den Dorpel of Algae-Link insists closed systems are the way forward. He
says the key to trying to make algae growing profitable is diversification.

Peter van den Dorpel: The good news of algae in general is that it will always produce a
combination of different products for different markets. So it's not just fuels, the good news with
algae is that the commercial value of these by-products is very high. So there will always a spread
of risk and there will always be a weighted average in terms of end value which is very appealing,
and that's why we see that our customers continue to invest in this industry and in these products,
irrespective of the existing oil price.

Naomi Fowler: One claim often made about the production of algae oil is that it's carbon neutral.
Dr Hellgardt again.

Klaus Hellgardt: Carbon natural...in the sense that you are building up biomass through the use of
sunlight, water, and albeit nutrients, and I think that's where the conundrum might lie, we come
into this whole fertiliser discussion; where do the nutrients come from?

Naomi Fowler: To get these high yields.

Klaus Hellgardt: Yes, exactly.

Naomi Fowler: Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr believes it's now time for the European Union to
officially verify whether or not algae growing, production into oil and the burning of the algae as
fuel really is carbon neutral.

Doug Parr: Lifecycle analysis is an important component of understanding what the climate impact of
a new biofuel will be, and in the case of algae that would include carbon emissions associated with
growing, drying out, processing, transporting the fuel to a position where it can actually be used.
If you look at European directives on biofuel, they have standards and even numbers that have to be
put into lifecycle assessments to see what the carbon saving is from, say, producing ethanol from
sugar beet. We think that there should be a similar approach for biofuel coming from algae, so that
we understand where we are with it and what the savings are.

Naomi Fowler: From what you're saying, there needs to be quite a lot of independent monitoring of
this whole growing industry. Do you trust governments to do that?

Doug Parr: The EU has got some of the policy planks in place to make it happen; they've got
lifecycle assessment, they've got mandatory standards, they've got some inspection and some
auditing. We just need to make sure that we're not being sold down the river by the claims that the
algae producers are giving us and that we get something that's genuinely sustainable and
worthwhile.

Naomi Fowler: Dr Hellgardt.

Klaus Hellgardt: There are also research projects on the way where you use human waste to grow
algae. So one big issue is can you upgrade waste treatment plants and use that as your nutrient
source for the algae, next to power stations or cement factories, where you've got a large source
of rather concentrated CO2, then that again makes sense to grow your algae in the same sort of
area.

Naomi Fowler: What's your hunch about the future when it comes to global level for fuel from algae?

Klaus Hellgardt: Ultimately in my vision it is a fuel for aviation purposes. Probably most other
problems we can solve with electricity. I think it has been stressed over and over again that we
are looking now at a huge diversity of energy carriers in the future and algal oil will play a
small role, and it will have a niche market but it will be there.

Naomi Fowler: Millions of dollars are being poured into biofuel research, up from almost nothing a
few years ago. According to Dr Dimitrov, some venture capital investors like algae because it
enhances their cutting-edge profile and their green credentials. And oddly enough, whether they're
ever likely to work commercially may not be that important. They already receive a percentage fee
for managing the investment. But, for now, whether pond scum or green crude can live up to the
claims made by some and the hopes of others has yet to be scientifically demonstrated. Naomi Fowler
in London for The Science Show.

Robyn Williams: And I must say I was startled to see a huge advert promoting algal research in the
British press, placed by Exon. Anyway, aviation has many carbon strings to its reduction bow,
including the silent aircraft from Cambridge, stronger, light materials, better air supplies for
the cabins, and one to apply right now, sensible air traffic control.