Anew life cycle analysis by a team from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, at the University of Oxford, states that algae-derived biodiesel could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deliver a high financial return, while also providing a sustainable and realistic alternative to conventional oil.

The study, published in the RSC journal Energy & Environmental Science, also suggests that If algae-derived biodiesel were to replace the annual global production of 1.1bn tons of conventional diesel, a landmass of 57.3 million hectares (142 million acres) would be required, comparing highly favorable to other biofuels.

The production process is the current barrier to large-scale production, says the report – currently 2.5 times as energy intensive as conventional diesel, which restricts the current financial and environmental feasibility of algae production. According to the study, “Investment in genetic and metabolic engineering will optimize the economics of producing microalgae, which, coupled with the decarbonization of the production chain, will realize the inherent environmental advantages of GHG emissions reduction.”

Professor Sir David King, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, said, “We are staring in the face of a fossil fuel crisis and microalgae could present a real solution. The economics of producing microalgae biodiesel need to improve to make it a competitive product in the existing market, but the good news is that the level of improvement necessary appears to be attainable. With development and investment into process optimization, a high financial return is expected, since algae can be used to turn desert areas into energy sources.”

Tara Shirvani, lead author of the study, added, “Global vehicle ownership is forecast to reach two billion in the near future, and with 90% of transport fuels being hydrocarbon sourced, there is increasing urgency to find an alternative to depleting levels of conventional oil reserves and rising GHG emissions.

“Investment in reducing the production costs of algae-derived biodiesel, coupled with a decarbonization of national heat and electricity grids, will enable the transport sector to move towards low GHG emissions. Countries such as Brazil and France, which already largely operate on defossilized grids, will have a distinct advantage over nations operating on a carbon-based electricity and heat grid such as China.”

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