Page last updated at 16:56 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 17:56 UK

In bloom: growing algae for biofuel

By Paul Henley
BBC News, Roosendaal

Algal tubes
Algae could provide a viable alternative to fossil fuel

"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.

While we speak, we are expanding thousands and thousands of square metres of sites in greenhouses here in Holland
Peter van den Dorpel, Algae-Link
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.

CO2 eater

But the big "green factor" associated with algae is that it needs CO2 to grow.

About 1kg of algae is reported to "eat" 3kg of CO2, which means tubes of algae could be laid out on brownfield sites next to a power station or a food processing plant to soak up emissions.

Algae-Link in the Netherlands already has a tie-in deal with KLM/Air France.

In fact, almost all the major airlines are keen to be the first to get a passenger plane in the air powered entirely by green energy alternatives and, as things stand, algae is looking the best bet.

The fact that not a single jet plane has yet flown on algae-based fuel is not stopping some in the industry confidently predicting it happening as soon as 2010.

Certainly, Europe's biggest aircraft maker, Airbus, based in Toulouse in the south of France, welcomes the idea.

Ross Walker, their Programme Manager Alternative Fuels, tells me algae biofuel will be "very good for our customers (the airlines) because they are potentially going to be charged, through EU legislation, for their CO2 emissions.

He adds: "Therefore, if they can have a product which is more environmentally friendly, it is a big advantage for them. And what's good for our customers is good for us."

Economics, then, may prove to be the driving force.

Some environmentalists are sceptical. Greenpeace think the speculation about algae provides a handy green disguise for the aviation industry which is actually anything but green.

"There are many questions about it", says Douglas Parr, chief scientific advisor for Greenpeace UK.

"How much land will it use? How efficient will it be? Will it ever be commercially demonstrated? But our main worry is that it comes as a distraction from the fact that aviation has got to do plenty of things aside from algae research in order to become truly sustainable."

Back in the greenhouse in Holland, algae pioneer Peter van den Dorpel is sticking to his guns. Economies of scale, he insists, will not defeat him.

"While we speak, we are expanding thousands and thousands of square metres of sites in greenhouses here in Holland and in the open air in the south of Spain and in China. So we are ramping up these locations to very significant areas of land."

UN urges global biofuel rethink
07 Oct 08 |  Europe
EU in crop biofuel goal rethink
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