UK Carbon Trust Launches Algae Biofuels Challenge; Commercialization Targeted for 2020

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The UK Carbon Trust has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with the mission of commercializing the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil-based oil by 2020. The Algae Biofuels Challenge is a multi-million pound UK R&D initiative that could see the Carbon Trust commit £3-6 million (US$4.8-9.7 million) of funding in the first phase of the challenge, depending upon the number and quality of applications received. The UK Department for Transport also recently announced it will be contributing to the funding of this initiative.

For the Challenge, The Carbon Trust is now seeking to recruit expertise from algae specialists in the UK to develop ‘green oil’. The challenge is to produce this second generation algae-based biofuel cost effectively at scale. If successful, algae could deliver 6 to 10 times more energy per hectare than conventional cropland biofuels, while reducing carbon emissions by up to 80% relative to fossil fuels, the Trust said.

The Algae Biofuels Challenge will have two phases. Phase One will provide grant funding for research addressing five specific topics:

  • Isolation and screening of algae strains suitable for open pond mass culture;

  • Maximizing solar conversion efficiency in mass culture;

  • Achieving both high oil content and high productivity in mass culture;

  • Sustained algae cultivation in open ponds (resistance to competing organisms, predators and diseases); and

  • Design and engineering of cost effective mass culture systems.

Phase 1 of the Algae Biofuels Challenge opened 23 October, with a call forproposals. Applicants for Phase 1 may apply for grants in the region of £500,000 to address individual topics (or parts/groups of topics) and these may cover up to 100% of eligible costs (research organizations only).

Prior to commencing Phase 2, sustainability criteria associated with environmental, ecological, and societal impacts (e.g. land use change, water use, effects on biodiversity, and carbon savings) will be used to select the location for the test and demonstration facility and design it.

Phase 2 will focus on scaling up and integrating the processes developed in Phase 1 and testing the research outputs (e.g. algae strains). It will begin one year into Phase 1 and last 5 years. It will involve the construction and operation of a multi-hectare test and demonstration plant in a climatically favorable location, which will provide the vital facilities required to address the challenges of large-scale economic production in open ponds.

The Carbon Trust said that beyond 2020, algae-based biofuel has the potential to replace a significant proportion of fossil fuel used in road transport and aviation, saving hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon every year globally whilst creating an industry worth tens of billions of pounds.

The Trust cited initial forecasts suggesting that algae-based biofuels could replace more than 70 billion liters (18.5 billion gallons US) of fossil-derived fuels used worldwide annually in road transport and aviation by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of more than £15 billion (US$24 billion).

Everyone agrees that to tackle climate change we must develop new and cleaner fuels. But we are clear that biofuels will only have a role to play in this if they are sustainably produced.

This project demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that second generation biofuels are truly sustainable—and will further our understanding of the potential for microalgae to be refined for use in renewable transport fuel development, to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

We launched a consultation last week on slowing down the rate of increase of the RTFO, fulfilling our commitment to proceed with caution following Professor Gallagher’s report on the potential indirect impacts of biofuels. [Earlier post.]

—UK Transport Minister, Andrew Adonis

The Carbon Trust is an independent company set up by government in response to the threat of climate change, to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organizations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies.

The Carbon Trust is funded by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government and Invest Northern Ireland.

2nd Algae Biomass Summit. The announcement of the Algae Biofuels Challenges happened to coincide with the opening of the 2008 Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle, Washington. The Algae Biomass Summit, sponsored by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and The Byrne Company is the official conference of the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO), and has almost doubled in size from the inaugural event last year to more than 600 attendees.

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