Algae could fuel planes, claim scientists

Scientists at Cranfield University believe that vast areas of algae grown close to airports could power air travel in the near future. British Airways and Airbus are among aviation giants […]

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By Kelvin Ross

Scientists at Cranfield University believe that vast areas of algae grown close to airports could power air travel in the near future.

British Airways and Airbus are among aviation giants backing a project at the university which is looking at ways to cultivate algae for commercial purposes.

While airlines are improving their fuel efficiency by around 1.5% a year, the aviation industry as a whole is growing by up to 5% a year.

Cranfield researchers say that algae presents a better option than other biofuels because it does not compete with land for food production.

Professor Feargal Brennan believes algae could be produced commercially in four years time.

“A great advantage of algae is you can harvest it every seven to 12 days, so you get 30 to 50 harvests a year, compared with one a year of conventional crops. The big problem is getting enough biomass to supply industry without having an adverse affect.”

The researchers will look at whether algae could be grown close to airports to prevent the environmental cost of distributing fuel around the globe. “If you have to employ tankers to bring it around the world, it wouldn’t be green,” said Prof Brennan.

But he warns against seeing algae as a silver bullet. “The solution to aviation fuel is likely to come from a variety of sources and this is only one of them. If there’s one lesson in all forms of renewable energy, it’s that there’s no silver bullet. The key to sustainability is not putting all your eggs in one basket.”

British Airways has stated that it would use low-carbon fuel to power part of its fleet by 2014, while the Air Transport Action Group claims biofuels can reduce emissions by up to 80%.