When most people think of algae, they picture a slimy bog, thick with green goo. But not Université de Sherbrooke’s Marc Veillette. Where others see sludge, he sees the future of fuel. “I think that microalgae could be a real sustainable solution to producing replacement fuel for the increasingly expensive and dwindling fossil fuels such as diesel,” says the chemical engineering Ph.D. student.
Others think so too. In 2007, the Canadian government decided to invest up to $1.5 billion over nine years as part of the ecoENERGY for Biofuels Initiative. In 2010, an algae biofuel project at the National Research Council’s Institute for Marine Biosciences, in Halifax, was launched to bring specific focus to transforming microalgae into biodiesel.
These decisions — which Veillette says have brought much-needed attention to the kind of work he’s doing and, in turn, make obtaining research grants a real possibility instead of a faint hope — marked the beginning of a shift away from other, less sustainable biodiesel sources, such as sunflowers and soybeans. Production of those plants drives up food prices, uses valuable agricultural space and creates land pollution, while transforming the plants into a usable fuel requires significant amounts of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Veillette believes that microalgae — taken, in this instance, from the St. Lawrence River — are a more sustainable option. Because microalgae grow in water, valuable agricultural land isn’t used. Microalgae also absorb phosphates and nitrates (pollutants caused mostly by the use of chemical fertilizers) as well as carbon dioxide, using them as nutrients for its growth. And, perhaps most crucially, microalgae can double their biomass in only 24 hours, allowing for multiple harvests over a short period of time.
Veillette gets his algae (packed in test tubes and sent via mail) in bulk from a research team at Université du Québec à Rimouski. The dark brown paste has the consistency of jam and contains oils called lipids. Veillette’s task is to experiment with the method of extracting the lipids to produce a biodiesel that meets regulatory standards. He hopes that microalgae biodiesel can eventually be produced on a large enough scale to replace the use of petroleum in cars, boats and planes but notes that those days are still far away.
“There’s a lot of research going on in labs right now, but not a lot of industrialscale projects,” he says. “It might take 10 to 15 years before the pilot projects become bigger and the amount of biodiesel coming from microalgae is sufficient for widespread use.”