The biodiesel industry faces huge challenges in the coming years. Unless you're in a country such as Malaysia or Indonesia where there's the climate and suitable land to grow plantations for palm oil or similar plant biofuels, then your options are limited.
In countries such as India, for example, the indigenous supply of these types of oils can't meet the everyday needs of the inhabitants, so there's little chance of it replacing the country's petroleum needs.
The key to the solution is finding an organism that is capable of thriving on marginal land with minimal input of costly resources such as water, fertiliser, pesticides and labour. And that's where algae comes in.
Certain species of algae have already shown the potential to be very successful in the production of biofuel in a diverse variety of environments worldwide. Algae can be grown easily and inexpensively in sludge water, waste water treatment facilities, salt water and ponds.
In India, scientists are experimenting with the creation of biofuel from genetically engineered diatoms, a type of single-celled algae. This microscopic organism is often visible as the green coating on rocks in rivers and lakes. Diatoms are also found in our oceans in the form of phytoplankton.
What is most significant about diatoms is that every cell contains oil droplets, manufactured by the organism as an emergency food source. This oil can make up as much as a quarter of each cell and analysis has shown that the oil makes a very good biofuel. What's more, while the diatoms produce oil, they absorb carbon dioxide, making the whole process an environmental no-brainer.
T.V. Ramachandra is a professor of ecological sciences at the Indian Institute of Sciences and believes that the potential for diatom biofuel is massive.
'Diatom cultivation could produce from 10 to 200 times as much oil as that produced by soybean cultivation.'
It’s an impressive statistic but one that has been confirmed by the US Department of Energy's Aquatic Species Program. But what makes Professor Ramachandra's research even more intriguing is his proposal to develop a biological solar panel containing diatoms instead of photovoltaic cells. The theory is the cells would float in nutrient rich water and produce oil on exposure to sunlight.
The obstacle at the moment, says Ramachandra, is convincing the diatoms to release their oil by exocytosis, the method by which they already release silica. However, he believes this is achievable by genetic modification.
If he's successful, then a solar bio-panel for the production of oil could be a reality within a couple of years.