Next generation biofuels

The argument that the production of biofuels takes place at the cost of food production seems less valid for the new generation of biofuels, which are produced from household, industrial and agricultural waste products. Edible parts of crops are first extracted, and remains such as straw, stubble or manure are used as the raw material for fuels. The use of algae takes this trend a step further: algae are grown in salt-water ponds, so no farmland is used at all.

Solar cells based on photosynthesis

The artificial leaves that researchers are developing in the BioSolar Cells programme are solar cells based on photosynthesis. Elsewhere in the world others are also working on similar systems, for example a research team led by Andreas Mershin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. They covered a glass surface with a thin film of pigment-protein that captures sunlight in the photosynthesis process. On top of this they laid a three-dimensional structure of zinc-oxide nano-threads and a sponge-like structure of titanium dioxide. This enabled them to convert 0.1% of the incident sunlight into electricity. For this invention to have practical application, its efficiency will have to increase by a factor ten.

The pigment-protein used was obtained from cyanobacteria, but the researchers think that the protein can in theory be extracted from all kinds of 'green waste'. The addition of zinc and titanium would make it suitable for spreading over roofs. By publishing the results in an open-access journal, the researchers hope to reach other research groups who are interested in further refining the system.

Not everyone shares Mershin’s optimism, however. Frederik Krebs, of the Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy in Denmark, who has worked on the application of organic solar cells in Africa, is cautious: “It’s an enormous feat to get from a lab experiment to a working application, with people who have no understanding [of the technology].” Moreover, he thinks that the sun may well damage the cells.

Joost Reek, Professor of Supramolecular Catalysis at the University of Amsterdam, and a BioSolar Cells project leader, points out that organic solar cells have already increased in efficiency, and are expected to become affordable in the near future: “I don’t think that the technology is likely to succeed in the way it’s promoted in the video. People want to be able to buy systems they can use immediately; they’re not interested in self-assembly kits, except for do-it-yourself fanatics. These systems are unlikely to be super-efficient. But it may well be that they will inspire new ideas, for example in the field of hybrid materials which will make organic solar cells possible.”

Sources: SciDevNet, 16 February 2012; Scientific Reports, 2 February 2012

Biofuels: the next generation

In the documentary FUEL, filmmaker Josh Tickell outlines the problems surrounding fossil fuels and the current biofuels. Tickell believes there is potential in the new generation of algae-based biofuels.


Can algae reduce biofuel dependence on food crops?

OriginOil, Inc., the developer of a technology to extract oil from algae and an emerging leader in the global algae oil services industry, identified serious dislocations caused by single-crop fuel policies and pointed to algae as a way to help make crops and waste more sustainable, in a presentation at the 6th Annual Meeting of the World Refining Association Biofuels 2011 Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 
In his presentation "Solving the Food vs. Fuel Issue," OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry pointed out that  Biofuels from waste can be sustainable, but caloric efficiency can be low, there are still competition issues, and there is a limit to all waste. He therefore proposed to pursue a feedstock diversification strategy, combine advanced fuels with waste based fuels, and use advanced fduels to mitigate issues with food based fuels and eventually wean away from them.

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