Thu 4 Feb 2010 – EADS, parent company of Airbus, has signed a 12-month collaboration agreement with Singapore’s Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) to assess the potential for microalgae as a renewable source of fuel for aircraft and to investigate the conversion of algae oil for use as a jet fuel. As microalgae are much more efficient than plants at converting solar energy and carbon dioxide into fixed biomass, there is significant interest across multiple sectors in their long-term potential as an energy source. ICES and EADS say that the rapid growth of microalgae – doubling in biomass in as little as a few hours – means that nearly 90,000 litres of oil per hectare can be produced annually.
ICES is a member of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the lead agency in Singapore for fostering world-class scientific research. Established in 2002, the institute’s mission is to “carry out world-class scientific research to develop novel technology and to nurture creative scientists and engineers to support economic growth in Singapore and to make a positive difference to society.”
Commenting on the project, Yann Barbaux, Head of EADS Innovation Works, said: “As a systems architect of airplanes, it is our responsibility to foster research on biofuels, even if we are not directly involved in the energy business. This collaboration with A*STAR will add the impressive skills, efficiency and determination of the Singaporean research and technology community to our efforts.”
Dr Keith Carpenter, Executive Director of ICES, said: “We hope that we can prove to the world that microalgae can be the solution for much cheaper and much more efficient source of fuel that can benefit the aviation industry and make air travel more environmentally sustainable.”
Microalgae require limited nutrients to thrive and can be grown in regions and conditions that are not in competition with food production for scarce resources. According to EADS and ICES, some microalgae contain high levels of oil content that can be used as the feedstock for producing jet fuel, for example by separation of fatty acids, hydrogenation and hydro-cracking.
However, technological breakthroughs are needed for them to become viable. In addition, there is current controversy over the environmental impact of the algae biofuels production process. In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers at the University of Virginia’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering concluded after an algae lifecycle analysis that the process consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other biofuel sources, such as switchgrass, canola and corn.
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