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 January 26, 2012
Scientists hail algae biofuel breakthrough

 Using algae to produce sustainable biofuel could become a commercially viable option after scientists claimed to have developed a new cost-effective harvesting method.

One of the major stumbling blocks to the technology, which promises to yield greener fuels without impacting food production, has been removing water from the algae to allow it to be processed effectively.

But by creating a cheap method of producing microbubbles that allow algae particles to float to the surface of the water, researchers at the University of Sheffield believe they can make harvesting easier and save biofuel producers time and money.

The system also uses 1,000 times less energy to produce the bubbles than previous methods and could be installed at much lower cost, professor Will Zimmerman, who led the research, claimed in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

The research builds on earlier work by the team at Sheffield, which allowed producers to grow algal crops more rapidly and more densely.

"We thought we had solved the major barrier to biofuel companies processing algae to use as fuel when we used microbubbles to grow the algae more densely," professor Zimmerman said.

"It turned out, however, that algae biofuels still couldn't be produced economically, because of the difficulty in harvesting and dewatering the algae. We had to develop a solution to this problem and once again, microbubbles provided a solution."

Algae-derived fuels are thought to be highly suitable for industries such as aviation, which is looking to lower its environmental impact with the advent of emissions trading in the EU.

Qantas and the US Navy are both experimenting with algae-based fuels, which according to advocates could produce the huge quantities needed to decarbonise aviation without affecting agricultural output.

Fuels produced from waste have also proved popular, with airlines including Lufthansa, British Airways, United and Virgin exploring the concept, while Etihad, national airline of the UAE, piloted the Gulf's first biofuels flight earlier this week.

The airline's newest Boeing 777-300ER landed in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday after a 14 hour flight from Seattle, during which it used a combination of traditional jet fuel and fuel derived from recycled vegetable cooking oil.

The fuel, produced by Dutch company SkyNRG, has been used by Boeing as a 'fly-away' fuel for every new delivery, a programme that was praised by James Hogan, Etihad Airways' president and chief executive.

"This flight marks a significant milestone in our efforts to support and drive the commercialisation of sustainable aviation fuel in Abu Dhabi, the region, and globally," Hogan said in a statement.

"However, the use of a presently available biofuel is just one part of a more comprehensive long-term biofuel strategy to ensure that we are able to use biofuels to decarbonise substantially an entire industry sector in the long term."