UK researchers to assess algae's environmental impacts in Europe

By Luke Geiver | September 07, 2011

The U.K.’s National Non-Food Crops Centre has been chosen to investigate the environmental impacts of algae-based bioenergy. “This study will help provide the evidence needed for a U.K. strategy for algae, ensuring that the developing algae industry is based on environmentally sound information,” said Claire Smith, technology research officer for the NNFCC.

The NNFCC was chosen by the U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council special algae group called the Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group, because as Smith said, the NNFCC works closely with the British government, industry and other research councils. The study to assess the environmental impact of algae-based energy in the form of fuel or biobased chemical use will help ensure algal biofuels avoid the controversy associated with conventional biofuels, Smith said, “which is particularly important so early in the development of what may prove to be a promising sector in the U.K.”

In addition to assessing the environmental impact, Smith said the work done by NNFCC will also help the region to formulate a long-term plan for algae. “The U.K. currently has a small-scale algae industry but we envisage a much larger industry  as we move towards the low-carbon economy of the future,” she explained. “By engaging with stakeholders, like industry, academics, funding bodies, policymakers and regulators, we can ensure that growth of the U.K. algae industry is both environmentally and financially available.” That, she also noted, is the purpose of the Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group.

The report will include reference documents for policymakers, including tips and requirements needed to help the U.K.’s algae industry succeed. Although the work focuses on identifying the research challenges to developing a U.K. algae industry, “its findings could be important to other countries and may have impacts on the sustainable development of algae as a source of energy, fuels and chemicals elsewhere in the world,” Smith said.

The environmental impact assessment of algae isn’t the only work the NNFCC is participating in. Along with a number of other research institutions, the NNFCC has agreed to participate in a four-and-a-half year study to address the current lack of information on both macro and microalgae productivity in North West Europe. The project, called Energetic Algae (EnAlgae), will work to develop a series of seaweed farms and growth facilities to provide researchers with information needed to address algal productivity issues related to the region. According to Smith, much of the focus on algae production has happened in regions that feature favorable climates, such as in the U.S., “but there is a distinct lack of information about how algae grow at scale in more challenging climates.” The EnAlgae research effort will be funded by $12.3 million.

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