Investigating the potential of microalgae

Sustainable bioenergy given a £4 million boost


Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, announced £4 million of UK funding towards sustainable fuels during a visit to India this week. The funding, with matched resources from India, has been awarded to four research projects that bring together expertise in sustainable bioenergy and biofuels from both countries.

Amongst the recipients of research funding is Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) who will receive £700,000 to investigate the potential of microalgae cultivated on wastewater as a source of biofuel.

PML’s Dr Carole Llewellyn and her PML research team will work in collaboration with Dr N Thajuddin of Bharasthidasan University and Dr V Sivasubramanian at the Institute of Algal Technology in Chennai  to study whole communities of microalgae and their associated bacteria. Currently producing biofuel from microalgae is commercially prohibitive. This is in part due to the high economic costs associated with the nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients required to maintain growth. Such nutrients are often in abundance in industrial wastewater. Furthermore, there are issues with the requirement of water for cultivating microalgae. For marine microalgae, systems need to be situated near the coast to use seawater, and freshwater microalgae systems are dependent on large and continuous supplies of freshwater. There is plenty of wastewater. And another added bonus of exploiting wastewater for biofuels is that it is ‘cleaned up’ in the process, making it more environmentally acceptable.

Dr Carole Llewellyn explains: “We want to understand the complex and dynamic systems and interactions in wastewater communities. This funding will help us find out what microalgae and bacteria are present in the wastewater, how they compare and what they are doing”. 

The research will include assessing algae and bacteria at both a community level and at a molecular level through isolating them and then bringing them back together in  various combinations. Lipids and carbohydrates which form the basis of biofuels will also be monitored. Results will be used to optimise the growth and composition of biomass cultivated on wastewater making it suitable for conversion into biofuel.

Dr Llewellyn continued: “Ultimately the research will contribute to creating solutions to producing biofuel from microalgae grown on wastewater with consideration to both the environment and the economy.”

The funding is a result of the Sustainable Bioenergy and Biofuels (SuBB) initiative funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in India.

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