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Biofuels from mass cultivation of algae becoming a reality

  • 2014/09/12

The algae that fills our rivers and rice paddies could soon fill our gas tanks. Various corporate and academic research projects are underway to obtain biofuels from algae through mass cultivation. These are then mixed with diesel fuels, which are currently being tested in vehicles. Soon, these innovations may also take to the skies, fueling our jetliners as early as 2020.

Foto: Wikimedia

For algae-derived fuels to become cost-efficient and come into wide use, however, mass-production technology must be established.At Shonandai Station in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo, there is a bus, painted green and white emblazoned with the word "DeuSEL." The name is a combination of the words diesel and euglena, the tiny organism with both plant and animal characteristics regarded as a kind of microalgae. The bus is a shuttle that makes 22 trips a day between the station and Isuzu Motors' Fujisawa plant. It is powered by a biofuel produced from euglena.

The automaker started the shuttle service in July in collaboration with euglena Co., a biotech startup, as a way to verifying the performance of the fuel through test runs on actual roads.    

Euglena, the algae, is about 0.05mm long. It gets energy through photosynthesis, absorbing carbon dioxide, and produces and stores oil in its body. This oil is being used to produce a fuel called fatty acid methyl ester (FAME), which is similar to gas oil (diesel). In the test service, the bus is driven by gas oil mixed with 1% FAME.

Euglena, the startup, is also developing an aviation fuel in cooperation with JX Nippon Oil & Energy and Hitachi. Aircraft use kerosene as fuel. Airline companies are eager to introduce biofuels to reduce emissions of CO2. The International Civil Aviation Organization has decided to cap CO2 emissions from international flights in and after 2020. Euglena aims to have euglena-derived biofuels account for 10% of fuel used by Japanese airlines flying domestic routes by 2020.

Biofuels made from corn and other crops are already used commercially, but it is difficult to rapidly expand the cultivation areas for such crops to substantially increase the supply of the fuels. Such action could also hurt food production.

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