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The University of Southampton

Southampton joins global race to commercialise algae biofuels

Published: 25 March 2010

Researchers from the University of Southampton have been selected by the Carbon Trust to join a ‘UK dream team’ of top scientists to find world-beating formula for algae biofuel.

The Carbon Trust has announced plans to take on the world in the global race to develop a sustainable, cost-effective biofuel from algae. The “dream team” comprising 12 leading UK teams will work together with the Carbon Trust to find a winning formula for cultivating 70 billion litres of algae biofuel a year by 2030. This will provide the equivalent of six per cent of global road transport diesel and a saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 every year. The teams were selected from over 80 initial proposals following an extensive competition and detailed assessment process.

Gail Taylor, Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Southampton, says: “This fantastic opportunity represents an investment of over £1.25m for the University of Southampton to kick-start two projects researching the sustainable fuel of the future. It recognises the University’s broad range of world-class research from across biology, oceanography, engineering and environment, which are drawn together in our Multi-Disciplinary Energy Research Group.”

The two University projects that have been awarded a Carbon Trust grant are hosted by the School of Ocean and Earth Science, with Dr Tom Bibby as Principal Investigator and the other investigators are Dr Mark Moore (School of Ocean and Earth Science), Dr Matthew Terry (School of Biological Sciences) and Prof Mike Zubkov (National Oceanography Centre, Southampton).

Starting from first principles of agriculture, thousands of strains of algae will be screened to find the winning few that can produce large quantities of a substance similar to vegetable oil. Additional research will develop methods for enabling large-scale production in algae ponds and next year the Carbon Trust plans to start construction of a pilot demonstration plant in an equatorial region where algae are most productive.

Algae has the potential to deliver 5 to 10 times more oil per hectare than conventional cropland biofuels and new Carbon Trust lifecycle analysis indicates that, over time, it could provide carbon savings of up to 80 per cent compared to fossil fuel petrol and jet fuel. With costs of algal biodiesel currently estimated to be approximately $5-$10 a litre, the Carbon Trust is focussing on more cost-effective production methods to ultimately bring the cost down to less than $1 a litre.

Launching Europe’s most significant public initiative into algae biofuels, Tom Delay chief executive of the Carbon Trust, said: “We have pulled together a dream team of over 70 UK algae scientists who have the expert knowledge to turn algae into a British biofuel success story. Applying principles this country has developed from its proud agricultural heritage and leading bioscience expertise we will be developing a truly sustainable biofuel that could provide up to 80 per cent carbon savings compared to diesel savings in car and jet fuel. With a market value of over £15 billion the potential rewards are high.”

Production of 70 billion litres will require man-made algae ponds equivalent to a landmass larger than Wales to be built in optimum locations across the world. Algae need a source of carbon dioxide and water to grow so the Carbon Trust is now looking to investigate possible locations for large-scale plants which could be, for example, next to industrial facilities located near the sea.

The Carbon Trust is investing £8 million over three years into the projects using funding from the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

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