Is Algae the Jet Fuel of the Future?

Andreas Heddergott / TUM
Andreas Heddergott / TUM / Andreas Heddergott / TUM

For simple, tiny organisms, algae sure keep busy. In some parts of the world, furry clumps of algae are kept as pets. In other parts, the little plants are converted into biodegradable bottles or ink. In others, they wreak havoc, causing mysterious blood rains or intoxicating plankton. And in Germany's AlgaeTec lab, they may have a future as jet fuel.

The development of the airplane was a turning point in Earth’s history for many reasons. Now that humans can fly, there’s no way we’re going to give it up. Yet a single 10-hour jet flight could use as much as 36,000 gallons of fuel. We’re burning through fossil fuels at a mind-boggling rate, but we can’t do that for much longer. So the race is on to find viable, sustainable alternatives. 

Biofuels from corn, flax, and other grains are less destructive options, but some scientists feel it’s unwise to turn food into fuel in a time of worldwide hunger. Additionally, farming those raw materials takes up a whole lot of space. Algae, on the other hand, can be grown in a jar. It grows 12 times faster than soil-rooted plants, and produces a tenfold yield per hectare of growing room.

To tap into algae’s marvelous potential, researchers at the Technology University of Munich (TUM) constructed a state-of-the-art algae lab, where they can test-drive the viability of various species, as well as the plant’s responses to all kinds of growing and climate conditions. “Nobody can really predict whether algae from the tropics will be as productive under German light conditions as in their native environment,” TUM biocatalysis expert Thomas Brück said in a press statement. “Just as nobody knows whether candidates that work here will be equally successful in the light conditions of the Sahara. But now we can test all of these things in our laboratory.” 

Image Credit: Andreas Heddergott/TUM

With 12 million euros in backing from the Bavarian government and jet manufacturer Airbus, the TUM team is hard at work puzzling out the most efficient ways to convert algae into kerosene

Image Credit: Andreas Heddergott/TUM

The goal is to create a viable product by the year 2050. While optimistic, the research team is clear-eyed about algae’s potential. "To substitute 100 percent of the kerosene use today, we will not do it with algae alone,” Brück told Yahoo. “We need a combination of different technologies to actually enable that substitution.”