Major €14 million initiative to develop seaweed as biofuel

Researchers at NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute are involved in a major €14 million European initiative to develop the potential of algae as a source of sustainable energy.

As a partner in the project, NUI Galway is responsible for the initial step of producing some of the biomass required for conversion to biofuel. This will be accomplished by cultivating macroalgae (seaweed) biomass at sea in a one-hectare pilot facility.

Currently, algal bioenergy technologies are immature, but rapid advances are being made in the field. NUI Galway’s part of the ‘EnAlgae’ project is valued at almost €1.2 million, over the next four years.

The project will focus on the cultivation of some of Ireland’s native kelp species (large brown seaweeds, commonly seen cast up on the beach after a storm). Growth of the seaweed crop occurs in two phases, the first phase of which is being carried out at the Ryan Institute’s Carna Research Station, Co Galway.

Dr Maeve Edwards, a research scientist at the Ryan Institute’s Carna facility, explains: “In our facilities here, microscopic stages of the algae are cultured and sprayed onto ropes. Once the seaweed has been ‘seeded’ onto hundreds of metres of rope, they are deployed at sea in the one-hectare experimental plot in Ventry Harbour, Co Kerry.”

Seaweed will also be cultivated in Northern Ireland (by Queen’s University Belfast) and Brittany, France (by Centre d’Etude et de Valorisation des Algues, CEVA). NUI Galway will coordinate the cultivation efforts of all three institutions.

Professor Colin Brown, director of the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, commented: “Ireland and the European Union recognise the need to reduce our dependence on dwindling petroleum stocks and are promoting the use of biofuels. I am delighted to see that bright young researchers in the Ryan Institute have spotted the opportunity to engage in international and innovative research into a source of biomass - in this case, seaweed - whose conversion to biofuels could help in the transformation of the transport sector.”

The four-year transnational Energetic Algae - or EnAlgae - project, led by Swansea University in Wales, is a strategic initiative funded by the INTERREG IVB North West Europe Programme via the European Regional Development Fund, together with a range of co-sponsors.

EnAlgae involves 19 partners and 13 observers across eight EU member states; France, Belgium, UK, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, and aims to reduce CO2 emissions and dependency on unsustainable energy sources, through the accelerated development and deployment of algal-based biomass and bioenergy technologies.

The project’s manager Dr Robin Shields, director of the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research (CSAR) at Swansea University’s College of Science, said: “Thanks to close transnational cooperation, EnAlgae partners and stakeholders will gain access to those sustainable technologies most suited to their local operating conditions. As project lead partner, Swansea University is delighted to extend its industry-focused research on algal bioremediation and biorefinery technologies, in partnership with acknowledged experts from across north west Europe.”

 

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