Aberdeen scientist aiming to turn sea water into biofuel for cars

Biofuels: Dr Ebenhoeh has worked out a formula that could turn sea water into fuel.
Biofuels: Dr Ebenhoeh has worked out a formula that could turn sea water into fuel.University of Aberdeen

Sea water is generally considered the enemy of most motorists, causing our beloved cars to corrode and rust in the salty sea air.

But it could soon be the catalyst that gets us from A to B if the theories of a team of scientists, led by the University of Aberdeen, pan out.

The same stuff that makes up two thirds of the world’s surface is also home to microscopic algae that an international team believe could be the basis for a new biofuel to power our gas guzzling vehicles.

Biofuels are currently created from crops and land-based vegetation, such as corn – something that the AccliPhot project coordinator, Dr Oliver Ebenhoeh, says is not sustainable.

Dr Ebenhoeh, from the university’s institute of complex systems and mathematical biology, said: "We need to find efficient ways of supplying our energy demand in a way that doesn’t compete for valuable resources like arable land or fresh water.

"We can’t just put corn in your car’s gas tank because it’s being used to feed millions already - it won’t be sustainable. This is one of the key motivations to look into marine microalgae.

"Cultivating algae using water that can’t be used for irrigation, like salt water or brackish water, makes sense because it’s so vast – it’s all around us and there’s no competition to use the land to grow other things.

"We’re hoping to understand the principles that guide these changes to environments and then see if this can be scaled up to industry scale. If that is successful then the applications are enormous because then you can really look into targeted pharmaceuticals or precursors for the chemical industry."

Micro algae eat carbon dioxide, light and some minerals. Cells of microalgae typically measure between a few to several hundred micrometers across and can be grown in vast numbers in giant 10,000 litre water tanks called photo-bioreactors.

Microalgae in the lab

Dr Ebenhoeh hopes that if they can be successfully cultivated to make biofuels they could contribute hugely as a solution to the planet’s energy crisis.

The project is due to run for four years and is backed by €4m of EU funding and involves 12 partners from across the continent.

First Minister Alex Salmond welcomed the development, adding: "Scotland is leading the way in the energy sector, with our world class oil and gas industry now allied to a vibrant renewables sector that is harnessing the power of our boundless wind and water resources to bring jobs and investment to our country and ensure we can power our nation on a sustainable basis.

"The AccliPhot project could herald another exciting development in Scotland's energy story with the team at the University of Aberdeen using cutting-edge techniques to support the development of a sustainable biofuel from microscopic algae."

The team will try to understand more fully how plants and microalgae respond to changes in light and other conditions and use that information to make new products.

Whilst the main focus is on biofuels, the study could also yield breakthroughs in antibiotics, nutritional supplements or even produce chemical compounds used in the cosmetics industry.