Algae as fuel

Bengal is taking the lead in algae fuel — a third-generation biofuel that has generated tremendous excitement worldwide. A city-based organization is conducting a pilot project at the Kolaghat thermal power plant and is expected to start production next year. What’s unique about this first-of-its-kind project in India is that the technology will eventually not only lead to a cleaner automobile fleet across the country but also help power plants reduce their carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emission. “Algae yields a very high amount of bio-fuel compared with jatropha or soyabean because almost the entire algal organism uses sunlight to produce lipids or oil. Studies show that algae can produce 60-80% of their biomass in the form of oil,” said professor Sarajit Basu, the mentor of the project and an expert on bio-fuel. Algae fuel leaves no carbon residue. Up to 99% of CO 2 in solution can be converted, which is returned to the air when the bio-fuel is burnt. This can help reduce polluting units’ carbon footprint. “The algae technology can be integrated with a power plant or a sponge iron factory where CO 2 emission is very high. For instance, the 1,260-MW Kolaghat thermal power plant emits 15,000 tonnes of CO 2 every day. We can trap this gas and channelise it into a pond where algae will be farmed. CO 2 and dissolved nutrients will give a major spurt to algal biomass,” Basu said. “The possibilities are immense. Fifty per cent of the CO 2 emitted can be used for algal farming, 25% for farming of spirulina (an edible algae, very high in protein content), and the rest can be compressed in its uncontaminated form to produce dry ice. The oilcakes again are an excellent fuel which can be burnt to generate power to run this entire process. So, it will be a selfsustaining technology,” said S M Ghosh, the head of Bio-Fuel Mission of Sun Plant Agro, which plans to start commercial production of algae bio-fuel by 2010. “We are taking land on lease near Canning for this,” said A K Singh, managing director of Sun Plant Agro. Both West Bengal Power Development Corporation (WBPDCL) and Sun Plant Agro will earn carbon credit for the algae project. “Algae can be the fuel of the future. It can produce nearly 300 times more oil per acre than soybean or jatropha, and has a short harvesting cycle, thereby lowering the production cost,” said Sunil Jha, chief manager (projects) of Sun Plant Agro. “What’s better, we can use wasteland for algal farming as algae can grow in arid and saline conditions. They can be grown in oceans, freshwater ponds or even wastewater, minimizing land acquisition issues and expenses. Moreover, they can grow 20 to 30 times faster than food crops. Regional production of microalgae and processing into biofuels will provide economic benefits to rural communities,” said Dr Basu.


They not affect fresh water resources

Can be produced using ocean and wastewater

Biodegradable and relatively harmless to the environment

Algae can produce up to 80% of their biomass in the form of oil, yielding up to 100,000 gallons of oil per acre per year

They have much faster growth rates than other crops

Algae can produce 100-300 times more oil per acre than conventional crops, such as jatropha, rapeseed, palms or soybeans and they have a harvesting cycle of 1-10 days, which permits several harvests in a very short time frame

Algae can also be grown on arid land, excessively saline soil or even droughtstricken land. During photosynthesis, algae capture carbon dioxide and sunlight and convert it into oxygen and biomass. Up to 99% of CO 2 in solution can be converted, which is returned to the air when the bio-fuel is burnt.

Moreover, by cutting down use of fossil fuel, it will return the balance of CO 2 .

Up to 60% of algal mass can be converted to lipids or oil

Besides replacing petrol/diesel, algal oil can be the future of air travel as well. On January 8, 2009, Continental Airlines ran the world’s first algae-fueled test flight with a 50/50 blend of biofuel and ATF


Algal oil is far too expensive than other commercially available fuels, but with new research and widespread cultivation, the costs can be brought down

Growing algae in a controlled way and harvesting it is also difficult

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