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The oil produced by microalgae could be just the thing for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

This photo shows harvested algae. Researchers aim to use local varieties of microalgae with the best characteristics for biofuel production.  Local strains are likely to be the best adapted to Canada’s environmental conditions. Using them would also minimize the risk of importing a potentially invasive species.

This photo shows harvested algae. Researchers aim to use local varieties of microalgae with the best characteristics for biofuel production. Local strains are likely to be the best adapted to Canada’s environmental conditions. Using them would also minimize the risk of importing a potentially invasive species.

Mention the word “algae,” and many people think “pond scum.” Well, it’s time for a major rethink. Single-celled microalgae contain oils similar to the vegetable oils that have already been successfully used as biofuels. And this algal oil may well be the greenest solution available to reduce the carbon footprint we leave every time we drive a car, buy fruit trucked from far away, or travel by air.

What makes algal oil “green”?

Science activity for students

Compared with fossil fuels, the benefits of algal oil are dramatic. Fossil fuels contain carbon that was locked away in the Earth millions of years ago. When we burn fossil fuel, this ancient carbon is released back into the atmosphere, adding to the overall carbon load. Microalgae, on the other hand, consume carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere as they grow. As a result, algal fuel would not add to net carbon emissions.

Unlike other biofuel sources such as corn, microalgae do not require the diversion of farmland from food production. In fact, an ideal scenario in Canada would be to cultivate microalgae in municipal wastewater, which is rich in fertilizers like ammonia and phosphates. Carbon dioxide could be diverted from industrial flue stacks to provide the carbon source. No other source of biofuel could be grown in this way.

This is a win-win situation on many levels. The microalgae would turn something bad (CO2, ammonia and phosphates) into something useful (oil, animal feed, fertilizers). Plus, the community would be able to purchase “local” oil.

Because microalgae grow so rapidly, harvesting can take place in a matter of weeks compared with the months that other biofuel crops take to mature. And the clincher is that a microalgae crop can produce up to 20 times more oil.

Algae: a carbon neutral fuel

Looking for super algae

Botryococcus braunii is an oil-rich microalgae that grows in fresh water. Oil droplets are visible on the algal cells.

Botryococcus braunii is an oil-rich microalgae that grows in fresh water. Oil droplets are visible on the algal cells.

Not all microalgae are created equal, so the search is on for strains native to North America that will be good oil producers. And who better to do the headhunting than a team from the NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences (NRC-IMB) at Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia, which has conducted algae research for the past 50 years. According to Dr. Patrick McGinn of NRC-IMB, who is the lead scientist on this search, the ideal microalgae candidates are hardy species with a prodigious growth rate, low appeal to predators and good oil concentration. Bonus points are given for traits that help a species thrive in Canada’s climate: cold tolerance and efficiency in capturing light for growth.

The production side of algal oil is full of challenges for our engineers and aquaculturists. No manual exists yet for “farming” microalgae on a massive scale. Yet this is precisely what is needed for algal oil to become a viable fuel alternative that can put a dent in Canada’s daily 2.2–million-barrel oil habit. Once the microalgae are harvested, their oil is extracted and then refined into fuel. Each step requires innovations in large-scale, cost-effective processing methods and equipment. For use in jets, a new process for creating a biofuel from microalgal oils has recently been developed by industry. Samples of this fuel have already been tested in commercial aircraft. “So we know that fuel from algae is possible,” says Dr. McGinn. “The key challenge is scale.”

Microalgae can be grown and harvested in open ponds. Photo credit: Seambiotic.

Microalgae can be grown and harvested in open ponds. Photo credit: Seambiotic.

What the future holds

The challenges are huge, but the prognosis is good, according to Dr. McGinn. His team is well on the road to isolating some super oil-producing algae strains. And once the algae are in place, he believes they will be a big driver for innovation. Dr. McGinn foresees the necessary engineering solutions following quickly. “Fuel from microalgae may be a viable alternative in five to ten years, and an everyday reality within two decades.” End

Microalgae 101

Microalgae are microscopic, single-celled forms of algae that can only be seen with a microscope. They are one of the earliest life forms to have developed on Earth, with fossil evidence dated to 3.5 billion years ago. During their long association with our planet, microalgae have been exceedingly busy. They are credited with producing most of the oxygen in our atmosphere, and from their lowly position at the bottom of the food chain, they have been pivotal in the feeding of just about everything else. That’s pretty impressive for a bunch of minute, plant-like organisms.

The biodiversity of microalgae is immense, with about 35,000 species identified so far. That’s barely the tip of the iceberg, though — there could be as many as a million different species. Microalgae are ubiquitous and adaptable. They’re found in fresh, brackish and sea waters, and can live in extreme environments ranging from ice and snow to mineral hot springs.