Can This Alga Finally Deliver on Biofuel’s Promise?

The goal of becoming independent of fossil fuel raw materials – defossilisation – is one of the biggest challenges scientists face today. We currently rely on fossil fuel feedstock to provide the raw materials for a vast array of industries, including agriculture and food, plastics and other synthetic materials, consumer goods and electronics, and, of course, energy. 

We urgently need to replace fossil carbon sources with alternatives as part of our response to climate change.

Biofuels have long been touted as a possible solution.  While these encompass a range of compounds, research efforts have focused primarily on bioethanol, produced  from crops such as corn or sugar; biogas from crops, and food and animal waste; biomethanol from, e.g., straw and manure; and, of particular interest, algal fuel. 

The advantage of algal fuel over most other types of biofuel is that it does not require the use of agricultural land, fresh water, or food crops.

The idea of using algae to make fuel is, in fact, very old. Presumably driven by the oil embargo in place at the time, the US initiated a program as long ago as 1978 with the goal of developing a biofuel using algae. 

The programme ran until 1996, but was then ended due to budget pressure, with fossil fuel derived oil still being significantly cheaper.  Major oil companies have also tried and failed to make a commercial success of algal biofuel, largely due to difficulties finding or developing algae that can make enough oil to economically compete with fossil fuels.

However, the balance of this equation is likely to change. Cambridge start-up company HutanBio believes they have found the one in a (not million, but) trillion alga that can make sufficient oil to form the basis of a commercially viable process. 

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According to HutanBio, scientists prospected algae off the coast of Malaysia for seven years in a floating lab, testing over a trillion sample colonies and whittling them down to the 80 that performed best against their predetermined criteria.

They now believe that they have at least one alga that can transform the production of biofuel, with the oil produced said to be a drop-in replacement for long-distance transportation fuel.

The technology focuses on harnessing the long-recognised advantages of alga biofuel. HutanBio’s green alga efficiently photosynthesises CO2 into fuels in bioreactors in the presence of salt water, utilising CO2 as a carbon source and thereby avoiding the utilisation of food crops, deforestation and the use of arable land.

As such, HutanBio believes their technology can be implemented in deserts and barren land, or alternatively adjacent to CO2 producers, such as cement works.

HutanBio was formed 10 years ago by Dr John Archer of Cambridge University, Noor Azlin Mokhtar, originally a Cambridge PhD student, and Suhaiza Ahmad Jamhor.

The name derives from the Malay language: “orang hutan”, where we get “orangutan” from, literally means “man of the forest”. The word “hutan” is used in the same way in HutanBio’s company name, referring to their use of algal “forests” to make the revolutionary biofuel.

The business recently received a £2.25m investment from The Clean Growth Fund, which said:

“We know that the use of algae has long been recognised as a promising source of biofuel, and for varying reasons many companies have failed to successfully commercialise, but the scientific rigor of HutanBio, the qualities of HBx and the market opportunities it has in the shipping and aviation sectors in particular gives Clean Growth Fund cause for great celebration to support the company’s future growth”.

Author note: Kirsteen Gordon is a partner at international group of intellectual property service providers Marks & Clerk.