According to NHK News, Japan’s auto parts giant Denso has opened a plant in Amakusa City, Kumamoto Prefecture, where biofuel will be cultivated from algae. There are many benefits to biofuel, and algae biofuel is one of the most promising sources so far.
Biofuel is Earth-Friendly.
During photosynthesis, the algae produce oil as a byproduct, which can subsequently be harvested and used for fuel. Because the oil is organic and derived from a natural process, the resulting biofuel is environmentally friendly. Kumamoto was chosen as the facility site because the region gets a lot of sun, necessary for the algae to thrive. (And on a side note, Amakusa City (primarily a fishing community) is one of the fastest depopulating cities in Japan, so the facility also offers the promise of revitalizing the area if successful.)
Biofuel vs. Conventional Fuel.
Biofuel differs from other more conventional fuels, such as the gasoline/petrol you put in your car. Biofuel is produced by natural environmental processes and is both more contemporary and earth-friendly. Biofuel can also be produced fairly quickly to meet demand. Conversely, traditional fuels, like coal and gasoline, are produced by geological processes over long periods of time and production processes are more environmentally damaging. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) goal is for biofuels to fill at least 25% of world demand for fuel by 2050, so that dependence on coal and petroleum can be reduced.
Algae Biofuel is Special.
Even compared to other biofuels, algae-derived biofuel is special. First, algae can be grown in areas already being used for other purposes, such as wastewater treatment facilities, making the construction of new sites less necessary. Additionally, cultivation of algae does not deplete human food sources, which is a concern associated with other biofuel sources, such as soybean and corn. Finally, while algae does require water to grow, scientists estimate that water used for algae biofuel production would be about one-quarter of the amount that is currently used in traditional crop production.
Japan is Leading the Way.
While research on algae-derived biofuel goes back to the 1970’s, relatively little has been done to develop its commercial production and extraction. While many companies are interested in utilizing algae biofuel, the methodology to enable commercial use really isn’t there yet. Hopefully, the Amakusa City facility can help close this gap.
Denso plans to start mass cultivation as early as October 2017, with the goal of making the algae biofuel commercially available soon thereafter. Maybe by the IEA’s 2050 deadline, we’ll all have vehicles running on algae power!