Green fuel is possible with artificial ecosystems

May 10, 2012 By Charlotte Dormer
Green fuel is possible with artificial ecosystems
Green algae on the surface of a pond.

For algae to power our cars and planes, production needs to be low carbon and cost effective, which means working with natural processes, not against them, say scientists.

Algae could become an important source of sustainable biofuel, as production doesn't compete with for land. But we may need to change the way we grow from closed systems to open ponds if it is to be low-carbon and cost-effective.

This is because current algae production in closed systems – usually for cosmetic ingredients – uses too much energy keeping the ecosystem isolated from the surrounding environment.

To overcome this issue, scientists from the University of Cambridge suggest that when grown in open ponds, algae should be supplemented with multiple species that help support the algae in some way. This would make the system less vulnerable to outside influences such as predators.

They say that ecosystems with greater numbers of species are more stable and more resilient to change than monoculture systems made up of just one crop. The scientists have coined the term synthetic ecology to describe the creation of artificial ecosystems with multiple species.

"A complex synthetic community mirrors natural communities much more closely," argues Elena Kazamia, whose scientific review is published in the Journal of Biotechnology. "Monoculture is not very natural. There is a tendency towards complexity in the natural environment - communities get more complex with time."

In a natural ecosystem there are plenty of potential roles, or niches, to be filled by species. The more developed the ecosystem is, the greater its complexity as more of these roles will be filled. These complex ecosystems often reach a stable state, which is best adapted to the local conditions, and all of the niches are filled.

It is difficult for any new species to get a foothold in the community as they have to compete against established species in that niche. As new species are unlikely to invade successfully, the ecosystem doesn't change. For the algae, it could mean that no pest species will be able to easily establish themselves in the crop area.

The other species in this artificial ecosystem would have more roles than just protecting the ecosystem against invaders. Adding grazing animals like plankton that eat algae other than the crop might prevent these other types of algae from taking over. Carefully selected bacteria might provide essential vitamins or nutrients for the algae.

"There is a point for all communities where growth is limited by nutrients available in the ecosystem. One thing synthetic ecology can do is look into clever ways to get round this. In a nitrogen poor environment you could use nitrogen fixing bacteria, for example," Kazamia explains.

Nitrogen fixing bacteria convert nitrogen in the air to more easily used nitrate compounds. They are an essential part of most ecosystems, enabling plants to use nitrogen to make proteins. The researchers are also looking at combining algae with bacteria that produce the essential vitamin B12.

"Because we have little or no experience of growing algae on a large scale, we have a good opportunity to try something new, based on the science," Kazamia adds. For the researchers, algae as a new crop represent a chance to start developing techniques from scratch, using science to inform the techniques used and working with nature instead of against it.

There's still a great deal of debate over the best way to harness algal fuels, and industrial trials are few. The scientists have published their work as a call to action for the new algal industry to put ecological principles into practice.

"Maybe we could do with a better understanding of algal biology but we have enough theoretical knowledge about ecosystems - what we need are some trials in the field," says Kazamia. "We should be looking at how many players we need for a robust system. Earlier studies on land-based agriculture suggest we need 20 . Is that the same for aquatic ecosystems? It's still very much an unknown."

Explore further: The origin of the language of life

More information: Elena Kazamia, et al., Synthetic ecology - a way forward for sustainable algal biofuel production?, Journal of Biotechnology, available online April 5, 2012, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiotec.2012.03.022

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User comments : 6

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Burnerjack
not rated yet May 10, 2012
Biodiesel is still diesel though, right? It's still oil production and consuption right? I guess I'm not understanding how this is all that much better other than to change the global cash flow in/out of OPEC.
Doesn't seem ecofriendly compaired to wind, solar and geothermal.
To make an impact, how big would an "algae farm aggregate area have to be?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet May 10, 2012
I guess I'm not understanding how this is all that much better other than to change the global cash flow in/out of OPEC.

The point is that CO2 is taken out of the air to make the biomass (the algae) and then released when the diesel is being used in motors. It's 'carbon neutral'*.
Fossil fuels aren't carbon neutral and cause us to deposit ever more CO2 in to the atmosphere....global warming and all that jazz.
(OK, ich you want to be pedantic then over the timeline of several million/billion years fossil fuels ARE carbon neutral, since these fuels were also produced by plants)

*Though, there are other things that are produced in combustion reactions like NOx. For this the entire cycle is anything but neutral.

To make an impact, how big would an "algae farm aggregate area have to be?

Depends on how big an impact you want to make.
ElGuapo
not rated yet May 10, 2012
Biodiesel is still diesel though, right? It's still oil production and consuption right? I guess I'm not understanding how this is all that much better other than to change the global cash flow in/out of OPEC.
Doesn't seem ecofriendly compaired to wind, solar and geothermal.
To make an impact, how big would an "algae farm aggregate area have to be?


We need to transition away from fossil fuel regardless. It won't be around forever.
djr
not rated yet May 10, 2012
This is a very interesting and relevant article - suggesting that given current economics - pyrolysis of biomas is the better looking approach. There is so much frantic research going on - what will things look like 20 years from now? - the 64 million dollar question.
http://theenergyc...yrolysis
kaasinees
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2012
Enclosed systems can work. If we create a beach located algae farms that use seawater and extract CO2, PCBs, maybe even mercury that can later be filtered out when being processed into fuels.
I can probably design an ocean base algae farm that does this but i will need an engineer to think with me.(But i geuss its semi-enclosed)

There are a few problems with this idea though:
- open ponds require a lot of area, i nthis regard it Does compete with agriculture.
- open ponds require water especially in a eratic temperature gradient...

Although you can mix the algae pond with a waste treatment plant. There is a waste treatment plant that mixes a few designed ponds(one of them algae). But i do not think it is enough to supply an economy but it is a starting point.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2012
This is a very interesting and relevant article - suggesting that given current economics - pyrolysis of biomas is the better looking approach. There is so much frantic research going on - what will things look like 20 years from now? - the 64 million dollar question.
http://theenergyc...yrolysis

The good things about pyrolysis:
- You produce electricity.
- You produce fertilizer that stabilizes soil ecology(the soil no longer outputs greenhouse gasses in destroyed bio diversities)
- prevent the rotting of the waste and turn something useful

Usage of pyrolysis and biochar can reduce global Co2 emmisions by ~23%.

And it is much like wind power, much much more cost effective than its competitors and creates jobs to maintain and operate all the machinery.

Wind, solar, biochar, and ocean algae farms. We can do it.

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