Using crops as a source of energy generated in the past years a great controversy. Mostly because we could use those crops as food for people and second because we use good agriculture lands to generate energy. But what if we could use an alternative to the crops of organic nature and use smaller areas of lands to produce the same amount of biofuels?
The alternative could be lignocellulosic biomass and microorganisms, were we can find microalgae. Microalgae seem to be at the moment the most efficient. Well, they have a lot of properties that could work in solving the controversy. Microalgae do not need fertile soil to grow or large land areas, so they do not compete with the food sector and they maximize water savings by the closed cycle. And this is not all: algae capture CO2 and can be integrated into the use of saline industrial effluents.
The Energy Unit of TECNALIA is doing a lot of research to get microalgae into mass production and use the whole potential they are offering. But things are not so easy to be solved and request a lot of work. The scientists have to find the best way to select the stocks, check for optimized production systems and find the most efficient operations in harvesting and final treatment of the microalgae for their transformation into biofuels. The selection of stocks is one of the most important steps as to know which microalgaes are the most productive and resistant to external agents. This comes with the development of genomics. Another important step is the optimization of crop production systems. Scientist need to know first which system is suitable and with the best performances from: open crop systems (raceways), closed ones (photobioreactors) or mixed systems (raceways with greenhouse). In the same time is being studied the process of capturing CO2 as a nutrient for the algae and the use of saline industrial effluents and the valuation of sub-products. Scientists check which is best technology available for harvesting and treating the microalgae crop in large, liquid-medium volumes until achieving the dry biomass itself or if the bio-oils extracted from the microalgae are obtained at reasonable prices and which can be potentially used to produce energy or biofuels. The final goal is to achieve mass production and usage of microalgae as an alternative to crops for food at low operational costs and investment.
Microalgae use for biofuels production is a field still in the research stage but with interesting perspectives for the future. The process is not completely developed at industrial level and still needs tons of work. For sure things will not remain on this level and will develop very fast in the next months/years.