To combat the national food and energy challenge, Bangladesh needs to focus on alternative sources of energy, says a microalgae biotechnologist.

To combat the national food and energy challenge, Bangladesh needs to focus on alternative sources of energy, says a microalgae biotechnologist.

Bangladesh will have 200 million inhabitants by 2050, which will lead to national challenges in terms of food and energy supply, as well as overall sustainability.

Bangladesh has been ranked a lower-middle income country for its improved economic performance in the past year according to the World Bank. The rate of economic growth will lead to attaining the status of a higher-middle income nation within the next couple of years. Hence, food and energy need to be not only sustained but also greatly enhanced for uplifting the population and economy.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the country has achieved near self-sufficiency in food grain production but is far behind in energy production and supply. Think-tank economists postulate that, because of population and income growth, the demand for energy is expected to rise by over 1.3% per annum for the next few decades. Records of energy import data for the last decades imply that, on average, Bangladesh imports about 3.9 million tons of petrochemicals yearly, of which diesel accounts for 2.3 million tons and costs around USD $570 million.

Policy makers and researchers in Bangladesh as well as many other countries have been looking for alternatives to fossil oil, and bio-fuel is one of the promising options. For several years, microalgae has been mentioned as a promising candidate for the sustainable production of feed, fuels and chemicals.

In the case of Bangladesh, no updated data is available, as we do not have a national microalgae collection and culture center. However nearly 200 marine algal taxa (seaweeds) have been reported so far by Bangladeshi researchers. The government needs to setup a microalgae collection and culture center to collect the strains and preserve the utilization right of the country.

For this ambitious effort to be meaningful beyond the scientific community, significant investments will have to be arranged in measuring algae performance under a specific range of conditions. As we have a limitation of experts and funds, we should make international collaborations to accomplish the projects.

Genomes of 186 Bangladeshi rice varieties have been sequenced in the Beijing Genomics Institute, in China, as part of a global collaborative project in recent years, opening up new opportunities for varietal rice developments. We can do the same for microalgae.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, jointly funded the sequencing and the initial analysis for the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI). Similar projects for microalgae collections, culture, and research will give us a green economy and it can be considered the green gold of Bangladesh.

Strategies for proper management and utilization of fresh and marine water resources need to be finalized and organizations or individuals need to be encouraged to increase investment. The government can take incentives to welcome Bangladeshi researchers across the world and give them partial or full attachments in various research institutes, universities and industries to engage their knowledge for the country.

The amount of sunlight we get is sufficient for microalgae production. Records from the Ministry of Agricultural data show that we have 0.73 million hectares of land that are not suitable for any crop production and can be used for algae production. The water required for microalgae can be used from any source, even the wastewater from our industrial or domestic use. The wastewater already contains nitrogen or phosphate for algae nutrient, thus this can minimize the production cost as well as mitigate the environment pollution.

Producing one ton of algae biomass requires 1.83 ton of CO2. Microalgae culture systems can be incorporated with power plant flue gas for commercial production, which will reduce air pollution while minimizing the cost of the algae production.

To combat the national food and energy challenge, we need to focus on alternative sources of energy. Microalgae is one of the strong candidates. Multilateral co-operation is needed among the government, stakeholders, researchers and individuals to make it happen.

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The writer is a microalgae biotechnologist and renewable bioenergy researcher, currently affiliated with Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion, Chinese Academy of Science, China. He can be reached at alam@ms.giec.ac.cn.