Algae biofuels – a blooming business

Algae. Some are green, some are red, some are brown. Some are slimy, tiny or huge. On first glance, you would think that they don’t do much, that they just sit there passively waiting out life’s storms and seasons. But on a microscopic level they come to life. Each algal cell has the fundamental organelles which help with the cell’s day to day running, such as a nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes (the control centre, powerhouse and protein construction workers of the cell) . But they also contain chloroplasts. These little photosynthetic factories house chlorophyll molecules which ultimately absorb energy from light and turn it into sugars.

Simple cartoon of an algae cell

Simple cartoon of an algae cell

Scientists have taken advantage of these little sugar-making factories, and in turn tried to create a renewable alternative to fossil fuel. The result? Algae biofuels. Today, the two main production systems used are open pond systems and closed photobioreactors. Open ponds are basically huge ponds (artificial or natural) filled with algae. Contamination is a risk, so algae strains that are able to dominate wild strains of algae are preferable. With closed photobioreactors, the algae ‘soup’ is contained in a network of small clear tubes, which are exposed to light. These can be very expensive to build and maintain.

Open pond raceway

Open pond raceway

Closed system - photobioreactor

Closed system – photobioreactor

Rapid algae growth is further encouraged by the addition of sugars, CO2 and nutrients such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Under these conditions, algae production can be all year round. Once the algae has grown to the desired quantity, it is collected and separated from its water solution. Once the algae has dried, the lipid content is extracted to make biodiesels. The carbohydrate biomass of algae can also be fermented to produce bioethanol. The great thing about algae biofuel production is that it reduces competition for arable land and fresh water resources, since algae can grow in brackish water, saline or wastewater.

Studies have been conducted around the world, and theoretical findings suggest that algae biofuels have the potential to produce between 10 and 100 times more fuel per unit area than other biofuels. If this can be confirmed on a commercial scale, we may have found a possible solution to our diminishing fossil fuel crisis.  The high-oil productivity of algae biofuels makes it an even more desirable alternative fuel. Algae with high-oil production are reported to generate more than 50,000 Litres of oil per hectare, per year. To produce this amount of oil, the amount of arable land (in the U.S.A.) necessary for algae biofuels would amount to less than 2.5%. And the resulting biofuel would cover 50% of US transport fuels! Now that’s what I call a pretty nifty turnover.

This is only a snippet of all the amazing things that can be achieved using algae. Development of algae biofuels is not an immediate solution to fossil fuels, but it is a start. By alleviating some of the environmental pressures associated with fossil fuels, and utilising natural resources in a healthier way through biofuel production, maybe we can meet rising world energy demands, and still create a better, cleaner future.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll set up my own backyard algae biofuel lab.


Tulip Mania

The Spring Equinox has come and gone, which means only one thing. Spring has finally come! If you hadn’t already noticed the crocuses and daffodils popping up everywhere, when you start to see the splashes of red, orange, pink and purple which signal the arrival of the tulip, you’ll know. Speaking of riotous colours, have you ever wondered why tulips have crazy colours and patterns?

A lot of tulips are susceptible to a plant virus, called Tulip Breaking Virus. This virus infects the tulip bulbs before they come into flower. So when tulips flower, the petals show a variety of colour changes, stripes, flames and streaks.  Infected tulips are then called ‘broken’ tulips. The intensity of these colour changes will depend on the age of the tulip bulb before it has sprouted, or the age of the flower when first infected, as well as the variety of tulip. There are two strains of the virus: Severe Tulip Breaking Virus and Mild Tulip Breaking Virus. Severe Tulip Breaking Virus will cause either full or light breaking. This means that the virus has stopped production of anthocyanin, a pigment found in the petals (and sometimes leaves) which results in red, purple or blue colouring. Lack of anthocyanin usually results in streaking and feathery patterns on the petals. Infection with Mild Tulip Breaking Virus causes an excess of anthocyanin production, resulting in petals with darker streaks, flecks or swirls. Although these colour changes and patterns make tulips more desirable, most ‘broken’ tulip lines no longer exist. This is because, over a period of time and tulip generations, the viral infection will cause the plant to slowly die, unable to pass on genetic information to future tulip generations.

broken tulips

‘Broken’ tulip

Absalon 'broken' Tulip

‘Broken’ Tulip Absalon

Two of the most famous ‘broken’ tulips were the Semper Augustus and the Viceroy. They were grown during the Dutch Golden Age, when the prices of tulip bulbs rose rapidly, as demand grew. This period in time was also known as ‘Tulip Mania’. The public coveted these ‘broken’ tulips because they looked exotic, flamboyant and extravagant. As a result, the prices of these prized bulbs rose even further. Unfortunately these tulip lines don’t exist anymore.

Semper Augustus Tulip from 17th Century

Semper Augustus Tulip from 17th Century

A couple of the ways in which growers try to protect their tulips against this viral disease is by adding mineral oils to the soil, and spraying the tulips with insecticides. Spraying helps to deter aphids, which have been proven to help in the transmission of the virus. The aphids colonise the tulips and feed off the tulip sap, and at the same time the virus is transferred from the aphids’ saliva into the plant. These tulips are then stuck in a cycle of disease, but despite their vulnerability produce some of the most beautiful displays of colour.