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Here’s how UBC researchers are maximizing the potential of microalgae

Monday, March 29th 2021, 3:17 pm - Algae is gaining recognition for its potential biofuel abilities and researchers at the University of British Columbia are investigating how the economics behind the production can be optimized.

This potential energy source is too small to see with the human eye, but researchers say it could make a big difference when it comes to climate change.

Microalgae is used in everything from pharmaceuticals to cosmetic products, and now a group of students part of the Green Joule program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are working on a way to turn this tiny organism into biofuel.

UBC Green Joule is researching how microalgae can be turned into biofuels, with particular attention to the plant’s growth and extraction process. One of the team captains, Montserrat Del Toro, says that microalgae has the potential to compete with traditional energy sources.

“In 2019, Canadians used over 106 billion liters of petroleum products and of that total, nearly 30 per cent of it was diesel products. As the world’s oil consumption increases there needs to be an alternate product that can reduce the world’s dependency on non-renewable energy.”

biofuel algae credit: greenleaf123. Getty Images. Credit: greenleaf123. Getty Images.

There are several reasons why microalgae is an ideal alternative to fossil fuels. Firstly, it can be grown quickly as algae is one of the fastest growing organisms in the world. Secondly, it relies on photosynthesis, which makes production costs relatively low. Third, it is rich in oil and very safe to manufacture.

While this all sounds quite promising, there are also several drawbacks. One of the main challenges of turning microalgae into biofuels is the economics behind production.

Even though it is cost-effective to grow algae, that isn’t quite the case when you try and convert it into a fuel that can generate energy, Dr. Gabriel Potvin, Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor at UBC, told The Weather Network.

“If there were no issues, we would be using the fuel right now. Compared to traditional fossil fuels, it is still not cost-effective. You have to grow the algae, you have to break them open to extract the molecules, we have to chemically convert them into fuel. That requires many steps, which drives the cost up.”

Finding a way to offset the production costs of algae has been the main focus for the UBC Green Joule team. One option the team is exploring is combining algae growth with wastewater treatment and together extracting carbohydrates and lipids to produce two different biofuels. The team hopes that by doing this, the costs could be offset by maximizing the products.

Thumbnail credit: Santiago Urquijo. Moment. Getty Images.

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