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ENVIRONMENT: Algae Against Climate Change?

Julio Godoy* - IPS/IFEJ

BERLIN, Sep 29 2007 (IPS) - Research into the use of algae to capture carbon dioxide from the air is changing the negative reputation of these organisms, often seen as a plague associated with agricultural fertiliser run-off.

Algae absorb carbon dioxide. Credit: Photo Stock

Algae absorb carbon dioxide. Credit: Photo Stock

Until very recently, the proliferation algae was interpreted as an undesirable consequence of the overuse of agro-chemicals, whose immediate results included skin irritation in humans and the death of aquatic fauna from lack of oxygen.

But their potential for absorbing one of the principal greenhouse gases – which cause global climate change – could be crucial for avoiding environmental catastrophes. Like terrestrial plants, the algae consume carbon during photosynthesis.

"We took algae from the ocean, we put it in plastic containers in greenhouses, where we fed it with carbon dioxide produced by conventional electric generators," explained Laurenz Thomsen, a bio-geologist from Jacobs University in the northern German city of Bremen.

"Exposed to solar light, the algae transform the carbon dioxide into biomass that can later be used as biodiesel, whose combustion doesn&#39t emit greenhouse gases," he added.

The Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Project (GGMP) is coordinated by Thomsen, with cooperation from the Bremen polytechnic university, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Marine Research, and several companies, including the European electricity supplier E.ON.

Thomsen has dubbed the small greenhouse "Algenreactor", set up at Jacobs University, where the algae transform carbon dioxide into organic fuel. The project is operating at the experimental phase, producing just a half-litre of biofuel.

"The diesel that we refine here is absolutely organic. It satisfies the European standards. I&#39m confident that we will be able to move on to an industrial phase in the coming months," he added.

Fritz Henken-Mellier, director of the Farge thermoelectric plant just outside Bremen, agrees with that prediction. Some of the carbon dioxide emissions from this coal-fired generator were captured by GGMP.

"Surely we need to build a much bigger greenhouse, covering hundreds of square metres, so that the capture of carbon dioxide and the production of biofuel correspond to the scope of a commercial energy plant," he said in an interview for this report.

Henken-Mellier calculates that "the capture of just 10 percent of the gases emitted by the Farge plant means a reduction of 600 tonnes daily of carbon dioxide."

According to Thomsen, the area of a greenhouse capable of absorbing the carbon dioxide from a 350-megawatt electrical plant and transforming it into biofuel would have to be 25 square kilometres and would cost some 480 million dollars.

The sum is small compared to the cost of conventional crops to produce biofuel and reduce toxic gases at a scale similar to that of the "algae-based reactor." An equivalent planting of rapeseed, for example, could cost as much as 25 times more.

But Thomsen&#39s project doesn&#39t convince everyone. "Those calculations are very ingenuous," said Karl-Herrman Steinberg, director of one of Europe&#39s leading algae producers, located in the northern German city of Kloetze.

"The costs of growing algae, the elimination of the water and distillation of the combustible oil are very high for this to be profitable on an industrial scale," said Steinberg.

Thomsen admits that the location of the greenhouses should be decided based on available sunshine. In northern Germany, with relatively few hours of sunlight, the model would not work. "The greenhouses would have to be built in the south and southeast of Europe," he said.

"We are already negotiating with German and foreign firms, from Brazil and India, which manage large algae crops," he added.

The GGMP is not the only project of its kind. During the first global oil crisis, in the 1970s, U.S. scientists came up with a similar process for transforming algae into biofuel. But the attempt was abandoned in 1996, when low oil prices erased the incentives to study organic fuels.

Now, with the current energy and environmental crisis, the U.S. company GreenFuel, in the north-eastern state of Massachusetts, is planning a greenhouse to cover at least one square kilometre for 2009.

Isaac Berzin, of GreenFuel, says that to capture the carbon dioxide released by a 1,000 gigawatt generate would require an algae greenhouse between eight and 16 square km, which could produce more than 150 million litres of biodiesel and 190 million litres of ethanol.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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