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Scourge of Finnish lakes could become major source of fuel

Scientists already know that ecologically sustainable fuels can be produced with microbes. The species of blue-green algae that plagues Finland has proven itself a superstar in its ability to produce not just ethanol, but also hydrogen, butanol, isobutanal and potentially biodiesel in a laboratory setting. What still isn’t known is whether this fuel could be produced on an industrial scale.

Sinilevänäyte Saimaalta
A sample of blue-green algae from the eastern Finnish waterway of Saimaa. Image: YLE / Tommi Parkkinen

Finland’s waterways may someday produce the country’s future fuel supply, as scientists are now discovering the amazing energy-converting powers of cyanobacterium, also known as blue-green algae or sinilevä in Finnish. For years, blue-green algae has only made headlines in Finland as the reason for the ruin of many a summer holiday, as lakes that are infected with the algae are deemed unfit for swimming. Each year more and more lakes are affected.

Researchers now say that annoying little algae may be Finland’s silver bullet for the future. Laboratory tests have shown that ecological fuel can be made from microbes that capture and store energy from photosynthesis. One of the strongest microbial candidates with the power to do this is blue-green algae.

Energy directly from the source

Cyanobacterium is one of the oldest organisms on the planet and its longevity is explained by its ability to convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy. Today’s fossil fuels are based on photosynthesizing plants or biomass that uses microbes as a starter. Complex industrial processes isolate these fuels from the rest of the mass, or they are fed with other microbes.

The main problem with this form of production is that the crops used for fuel these days compete for arable land with food crops. In a search for cleaner, more ecological fuel, researchers at the University of Turku have not set out to find a way to mass produce fuel from cyanobacterium. 

You can’t make fuel drop by drop

Cyanobacteria can be mutated to produce a wide variety of chemical compounds on its own, without the use of a biomass or other starters. The tiny microbes work like milk cows - kept under perfect conditions so their udders never run dry.

Still, the bio-reacting process must produce fuel on a stupendous scale if it is to be economically feasible. How each of the five fuels that can be produced by the algae can be isolated from the microbe and used without destroying them is an essential issue in future research.

Current industry specifications for potentially scalable chemical production are roughly 100 grams per litre of fuel or chemicals. Laboratory production of fuel from blue-green algae is generally less than 1 gram per litre, meaning that current efficiency is very low.

Transparent production

Yet postdoctoral researcher Pauli Kallio of the University of Turku is optimistic that his team will find a way to produce fuel from the algae on a greater scale. He envisions a future where bioreactors produce microbe-based fuels of all sorts. The process will be transparent in every sense, as sunlight is the decisive factor. The reactors could be positioned in locations deemed unsuitable for other uses, like deserts, seas and wastelands, he says.

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