In the race for renewable energy, a source that was once seen as a nuisance – as any backyard pool owner could tell you – is now carving a space as a viable biofuel.
Biofuels made from algae are taking a place as a future fuel for heavy transport, shipping and aviation and are removing the classic biofuel dilemma of having to choose between farming for fuel or food.
Biofuels have been dubbed a forgotten renewable energy source, but they will be a key fuel for powering future transport.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says bioenergy accounted for half of all renewable energy used in 2017 and will remain the main source of renewable energy through to 2023.
Yet, they have – to date – been overshadowed by wind and solar. But now, they are making their mark on industry.
The new wave of renewable biofuel is predominately sourced from corn and soy, two major food crops that require a significant amount of land to develop, as well as other sources such as algae and palm oil.
Algae is carving a spot as a unique fuel source among biofuels as the greenest choice, because it actually devours carbon dioxide to grow.
Algae also has another benefit over other biofuels – using algae means people are not forced to face a choice between food and fuel.
A shift towards corn- or soy-based biofuels has seen food costs rise. As farmers can choose between growing corn or soy for food or fuel, it means they may grow crops for fuel, taking potential food off the table. The UN even asked the US to suspend its development of biofuels made from corn because of this.
Algae, unlike these other fuel sources, also uses significantly less land compared to corn and soy, as it is able to grow in enclosed spaces. Algae is capable of producing between 15,100 litres and 22,700 litres of fuel per acre per year, compared to soy at 150 litres and corn at 1,500 litres.
Researchers into algae biofuel – such as ExxonMobil – have even set up farms to develop it.
Algae also uses less water to produce compared to other biofuels.
This is a major issue for countries such as Singapore, which faces future water scarcity issues even as it upgrades its existing water supplies.
Singapore currently sources a large proportion of its drinking water from desalination plants or by importing it from Malaysia.
The potential of using a fuel to keep the city on the move without threatening water supplies is letting countries such as Singapore have the best of both worlds – food on the table and fuel to keep industry and transport moving.