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Green fuel is possible with artificial ecosystems

10 May 2012, by Charlotte Dormer

For algae to power our cars and planes, production needs to be low carbon and cost effective, which means working with natural processes, not against them, say scientists.

Green algae

Green algae on the surface of a pond.

Algae could become an important source of sustainable biofuel, as production doesn't compete with food crops for land. But we may need to change the way we grow algae from closed systems to open ponds if it is to be low-carbon and cost-effective.

This is because current algae production in closed systems – usually for cosmetic ingredients – uses too much energy keeping the ecosystem isolated from the surrounding environment.

To overcome this issue, scientists from the University of Cambridge suggest that when grown in open ponds, algae should be supplemented with multiple species that help support the algae in some way. This would make the system less vulnerable to outside influences such as predators.

They say that ecosystems with greater numbers of species are more stable and more resilient to change than monoculture systems made up of just one crop. The scientists have coined the term synthetic ecology to describe the creation of artificial ecosystems with multiple species.

'A complex synthetic community mirrors natural communities much more closely.'
Elena Kazamia, University of Cambridge

'A complex synthetic community mirrors natural communities much more closely,' argues Elena Kazamia, whose scientific review is published in the Journal of Biotechnology. 'Monoculture is not very natural. There is a tendency towards complexity in the natural environment - communities get more complex with time.'

In a natural ecosystem there are plenty of potential roles, or niches, to be filled by species. The more developed the ecosystem is, the greater its complexity as more of these roles will be filled. These complex ecosystems often reach a stable state, which is best adapted to the local conditions, and all of the niches are filled.

It is difficult for any new species to get a foothold in the community as they have to compete against established species in that niche. As new species are unlikely to invade successfully, the ecosystem doesn't change. For the algae, it could mean that no pest species will be able to easily establish themselves in the crop area.

The other species in this artificial ecosystem would have more roles than just protecting the ecosystem against invaders. Adding grazing animals like plankton that eat algae other than the crop might prevent these other types of algae from taking over. Carefully selected bacteria might provide essential vitamins or nutrients for the algae.

'There is a point for all communities where growth is limited by nutrients available in the ecosystem. One thing synthetic ecology can do is look into clever ways to get round this. In a nitrogen poor environment you could use nitrogen fixing bacteria, for example,' Kazamia explains.

Nitrogen fixing bacteria convert nitrogen in the air to more easily used nitrate compounds. They are an essential part of most ecosystems, enabling plants to use nitrogen to make proteins. The researchers are also looking at combining algae with bacteria that produce the essential vitamin B12.

'Because we have little or no experience of growing algae on a large scale, we have a good opportunity to try something new, based on the science,' Kazamia adds. For the researchers, algae as a new crop represent a chance to start developing techniques from scratch, using science to inform the techniques used and working with nature instead of against it.

There's still a great deal of debate over the best way to harness algal fuels, and industrial trials are few. The scientists have published their work as a call to action for the new algal biofuel industry to put ecological principles into practice.

'Maybe we could do with a better understanding of algal biology but we have enough theoretical knowledge about ecosystems - what we need are some trials in the field,' says Kazamia. 'We should be looking at how many players we need for a robust system. Earlier studies on land-based agriculture suggest we need 20 species. Is that the same for aquatic ecosystems? It's still very much an unknown.'


Elena Kazamia, David C Aldridge, Alison G Smith, Synthetic ecology - a way forward for sustainable algal biofuel production?, Journal of Biotechnology, available online April 5, 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiotec.2012.03.022


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Your comments

Possible is one thing, but will it actually make sense? While I remain enthusiastic about alternative fuels in general and biodiesel in particular, I am seriously struggling to understand why all the emphasis upon what will certainly prove to be an overall inefficient process when there remains hundreds of years of petroleum available. Energy density, net energy footprint, economics, and need to maintain critical quality all seem to remain leaning towards petroleum for the time being. Ah, but the fad is doing everything "green" whether it makes sense or not! And anthropogenic carbon dioxide? Complete farce! The globe is now in a cooling cycle, possible another Dalton Minimum approaching. But the preponderance of evidence being most often ignored that it has everything to do with solar cycles. Doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons is always commendable. But this? A great deal of effort and expense with little to nothing to gain. Why? To assuage our (mostly falsely) guilty consciences? Not for the right reasons, I'm afraid! Growing our clean technologies is wonderful, but we must be sure that it also provided sufficient benefit to be worthy of the effort.

SB, USA
Thursday, 10 May 2012 - 21:13

This sounds awesome. I hope you guys actually succeed since Algae based biofuels seems to be the best solution for producing the best eco friendly sources of fuel that has minimal impact to the enviroment, especially when combined with solar, wind and other eco friendly energy sources.

Kevin, TBA
Friday, 11 May 2012 - 03:25

Mr. or Ms. SB You are a complete Moron. So there is so many years left. Your suggestion is to spend all of your savings then worry about making more money.
As for green fuel, I think they will do better to utilize the Algae as food source first for animals and humans. As the human knowledge and expertise rises and level production hits the excess market then they can use for it oil and anything else.
At the present so much of the energy spent on growing food for the Aquaculture industry instead all that energy can be diverted into growing the food that the fish, shrimp and other aquatic life were actually meant to eat. This has the two fold effect of cutting all that extra processing, fuel, transportation and other costs, and allow for better utilization of resources. We need to start being true to ourselves. Not in the case of Mr. or MS. SB's suggestion burn everything today and worry about tomorrow, day after tomorrow.

Simple Life, Earth
Saturday, 12 May 2012 - 01:43

Preliminary indications are the combustion products of bio fuels are lighter than than traditional earth sourced petroleum products because there are less or fewer minerals in biofuels. What this means is the settlement time back to the planet for bio based fuels is significantly longer than earth sourced petroleum products; generally measured in months to years to get back to the planet's surface. This is important because the more particulates that remain in the atmosphere longer, have a greater chance of combining with other atmospheric particulates forming more smog and very likely more toxic smog. So until extensive testing is done of large aircraft bio fuel combustion products in their atmospheric deposited environment, their length of stay in the atmosphere, upper atmosphere in particular, to know bio fuel is not generating more or significantly more smog than earth sourced petroleum products is at least important, and maybe critical to prevent reduction of sunlight due to additional smog to say nothing of the apparent added toxic chemical effects of bio fuels on the plant and animal kingdoms. A substantially complete picture of bio fuel matters. Practically all news sources have not yet presented a substantial picture of the possible added risks of bio fuels as presented above. Please do so at your earliest convenience; for the sake of the good health of humanity and the animal kingdom as a minimum. So the concern on where to grow bio fuel is highly premature. Terry D. Welander email: tdwelander@gmail.com

Terry D. Welander, Chisholm, MN
Monday, 14 May 2012 - 17:28