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Addressing Knowledge Gaps will make Algae Biofuels Sustainable

As we all know, algae is emerging as a very attractive biofuel feedstock in recent years. However, it is yet to hold the promise of being the sustainable alternative the whole world is in search of. In one of the previous blog posts, I had mentioned that the issue of sustainability has to be handled at a fundamental level. The fundamental approach would involve indentifying and addressing the knowledge gaps prevalent in the whole process.

Water Environment Research, in one of its recent publication, has given an insight about the knowledge gaps presently restricting the production of algal biodiesel and algae-derived biogas. According to WET, both pilot scale approach and industrial scale approach faces major hurdles throughout the process.

The major knowledge gaps that require serious research in near term are summarised below:

Presently, lipid accumulation and biomass productivity appear to be mutually exclusive and hence there is a need for development of cultivation systems capable of generating large quantities of lipid-rich algal biomass so as to improve the economic viability of algal biodiesel production.

Instead of fiddling with loads of genes, it would be highly beneficial and rewarding if the genetic engineering approach is precisely used to enhance lipid productivity by performing concentrated research on the lipid biosynthesis genes. Research works should also focus on improving the photosynthetic efficiency of algae.

Biodiesel should not be the only end product to focus upon. There are many other routes for algae to biofuels that deserves considerable attention. Anaerobic digestion of algal biomass generated during wastewater treatment processes represents an interesting approach to algal biofuels, but is poorly understood or investigated. Bioethanol, hydrogen and off late biobutanol is also being produced from algae. An appropriate technology for harvesting algae must be developed to bridge all these technologies.

Both primary and secondary harvesting procedures are energy-intensive and expensive. Improving this aspect of algal processing will reduce costs associated with biofuel production.

Detailed Levelised Cost Analysis for algal biogas, bioethanol, biohydrogen and biodiesel production are needed to determine which biofuel pathway is most favourable, with respect to GHG emissions and net energy yields.

Development of more efficient and environmentally friendly lipid extraction/transesterification processes are needed to improve the sustainability of algal biodiesel

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