Algae Biofuel Can Substitute Conventional Jet Fuel, Says Turkish Researchers

Researchers at the Bogazici University, Turkey, are working to produce biofuel for aeroplanes from algae.

They are conducting their experiments in a lab away from the Black Sea. Here, huge masses of cloudy and green algae swirl under the hot sun in the lab's greenhouse with the help of a squeaky motor.

Image Credits: Pixabay

“Right now, they’re just getting fat,” said Berat Haznedaroğlu, Director of the Istanbul Microalgae Biotechnologies Research and Development Center. “As you can see they’re just using air — carbon dioxide and sunlight.”

The strain of algae is filled with fatty acids. The more the number of fatty algae, the more fuel they can produce. But producing this biofuel on a large scale is not an easy task.

The research team drain the algae pools into large metal tanks and use chloroform and ethanol to break the algae into fatty acids. The oil produced is checked for quality and shipped to a nearby refinery to turn into jet fuel.

Demand and Supply
Algae biofuels are considered renewable because the algae absorb carbon while flourishing more efficiently than soy and corn.

Airline authorities have sanctioned algae biofuels to be mixed with conventional jet fuels in a 50/50 ratio without changing the airlines' jet engines.

Without the government's financial support, algae-based jet fuel costs about $2,500 to $3,000 per ton, which is about three times the price of conventional biofuel.

One of every 2,600-gallon tank can grow algae that can produce about 15 to 40 gallons of fuel at a time. On the other hand, a Boeing 737 passenger jet burns 800 gallons of fuel in an hour.

With such high demand, producers are unable to cope-up with it.

The Future Of Algae Biofuel
Algae can grow faster and flourish in wastewater. It can be produced without using expensive fertilizers and cherished agricultural land.

“So, in theory, it’s win-win-win,” said Kevin Flynn, a phytoplankton expert with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom. “But when you do the calculations, the total amount of land and nutrients needed to do this is phenomenal.”

According to him, algae biofuel is a solution to help reduce carbon emissions widely.

Despite investor interests, algae biofuel appeared uncertain and unpredictable outside the lab. In 2016, when the price of crude oil decreased, markets refused to show any effort toward sustainable fuel development.

“Investors lost interest, practically overnight,” said Rebecca White, a Microbiologist and Head of Algae Biomass Organization, a Minnesota-based industry group. “It was definitely a bubble, and it definitely burst.”

Haznedaroğlu's goal is to bring the price of algae biofuel down to $1000 per ton. He believes that this price will be lower than conventional jet fuel.

One way is to counteract the costs by selling other algae-based products, like animal feed and supplements. Food-grade algae products are produced in the lab's greenhouse with an enclosed tube system.

“Fuel is the cheapest product you can get from algae — and by cheapest, I mean the lowest-value product,” said Haznedaroğlu. “The other pigments [food-grade algae products] go for like, 2,000 euros [about $2,129] per kilogram.”

The research team will set to add 5 percent of its algae biofuel to the flight of Turkish Airlines at the end of the year.


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