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Prof. Hein de Baar: Algae produce the ideal biofuel’

15 January 2008

Organic fuels for vehicles, derived from plants, have become increasingly important since the huge price rises for crude oil and the increased awareness of climate problems. Rapeseed and corn are popular sources of biofuel, but are not nearly as cost-effective as algae could be, in the opinion of Hein de Baar, head of the Marine Biology research group of the University of Groningen. ‘By farming algae, you can in principle generate the highest possible production per square metre of surface area.’

De Baar wants to start up an algae farming project in the Netherlands. In addition to sunlight, algae need the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide – the greatest cause of the warming of the earth – in order to grow. Fully grown algae can then be turned into fuel for vehicles. ‘It is a very feasible idea. I expect it to be viable within two to four years.’

No food

By using algae instead of plants to generate biofuel, many common problems with ordinary plants can be avoided. For example, they are often also food plants. ‘Just think of the corn production. Not long ago, so much corn was purchased to make fuel that the Mexicans could no longer afford to buy corn for their traditional diet’, says De Baar. ‘You don’t have that problem with algae.’

On land

Unlike many plants, algae can be farmed virtually anywhere in the world. ‘But not in the sea. That would immediately make it much more expensive. There’s no need at all to be transporting everything back and forth. It’s much better to farm them on land. That can be done by flooding areas of land, or by farming the algae in barrels of water.’

Cooperation

‘Most sea algae grow more quickly in warmer water, at a temperature of about 25 degrees Celsius, for example. That’s very easy in the tropics, and despite the low winter temperatures, it’s also possible in the Netherlands. It can be done, for example, by diverting the residual heat from factories to the algae farms.’ De Baar sees great potential in such cooperation with industry. ‘Carbon dioxide from the exhaust pipes of factories could also be sent straight to the algae farms. That means that less of that greenhouse gas is being added to the atmosphere.’ The algae also need nitrogen and phosphorus. ‘Animal waste contains large quantities of these products. Imagine that a pig flat is situated in Delfzijl; the waste could be used immediately in an algae farm located close by. That would also contribute to reducing the waste surplus.’

Force-feeding

As far as De Baar is concerned, farming algae is a much handier solution than an earlier suggestion, namely ‘force-feeding’ algae at the South Pole. That would only extract carbon dioxide from the air. De Baar thinks that is unnecessarily complicated. ‘The only material that we are currently dumping into the environment is carbon dioxide. To decide that we just have to let that happen and then start messing about somewhere else – the South Pole – trying to catch it again – that’s just stupid. It’s much more profitable to farm algae. You’re not only removing carbon dioxide from the environment, but also contributing to our need for a more cost-effective fuel.’

Curriculum Vitae

Hein de Baar is head of the Ocean Ecosystems group at the University of Groningen. He is also linked to the department of biological oceanography of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research on Texel. /RV

Contact: Prof. H.J.W. De Baar, tel. NIOZ (0031222) 36 94 65, tel. RUG (003150) 363 20 79, e-mail: debaar@nioz.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.11 p.m.

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