back to article 'First algae-fuelled airliner flight' takes off tomorrow

US airline Continental says it will carry out "the first biofuel flight by a commercial carrier using algae as a fuel source" tomorrow. Previous airliner biofuel trials have used controversial "first-generation" feedstocks, seen as contributing to world hunger and deforestation, apart from a recent New Zealand test involving …


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  1. Edwin

    Silly question maybe

    but how is biofuel low carbon? Presumably, we're still burning hydrocarbons, yes?

    I've seen references to non-fossil-carbon biofuels, but presumably that's something different. Or is it?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Are you sure this is 2nd gen?

    As I understand the terminology, 2nd gen biofuel is derived from cellulose/lignin plant parts (stems, husks etc that are harder to extract energy from but much more worthwhile)... fuel from algaculture is 3rd gen.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Algae is a major CO2 sink

    The only problem is here is that I was taught years ago in college that marine algae is by far the largest consumer of CO2 on the planet. So harvesting it as fuel will only increase C02 levels...Oh my!

    But no worries! Science has being rewritten to fit the needs of a political agenda. Believers in man-made global warming are now telling us it's the Brazilian rainforest that's responsible as "the lungs of the earth."

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "perhaps even on saltwater"?

    You do know that seaweed is algae don't you?

  5. Ian Rogers
    Thumb Up

    @Silly question, CO2 sink

    1. Algae is grown and replaceable in a sustainable way, which is much better than digging up coal/oil/gas and just burning it.

    2. Natural algae is no good for oil production so extra algae has to be grown specially. In fact the best bet so far is algae farms right next to power stations, cement factories etc. that suck the concentrated CO2 directly from the chimney stacks before it gets diluted into the athmosphere.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    le sigh

    it's low carbon becouse the algea itself is carbon neutral (all the carbon it absorbs during growth is released back into the atmosphere when it is eventually "burnt" for fuel) however the processes to grow and concentrate the algea will require carbon of somesort (power to create optimum growing environment/concentrate into fuel/transport/etc)

    As such it is low carbon.

    My thoughts? Who cares? Worlds screwed anyway, human race all die out some day be it a hundred years or a hundred thousand. The world all just get back to normal so the cockroach people can take over in a few hundred million years. At which point we'll be part of the fossil fuels.

  7. Geoff Kennedy

    A large, bloated object that run on pondscum and nuts?

    I thought those were lawyers....

  8. Colin Miller

    CO2 cycle for dummies

    When a plant grows it takes in CO2, and converts it into starch, oils, proteins, cellulose, lignin etc; if the plant is living, but not increasing in size, then it respires (at night) as much CO2 as it takes in (during the day).

    When the plant dies, as it rots/burns that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere (ignoring that some of it ends up as methane; when the methane is broken down, the CO2 cycle is restored).

    If we burn a plant that we have just grown (and are planning on replacing), then there is no overall effect on CO2 levels; the problem is that we have being burning fossil fuels, ie the remains of plants that grew but didn't rot millions of years ago, and are now releasing million-year old CO2.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    @ Edwin

    You're burning hydrocarbons, yes, which releases CO2; but the carbon you release was all captured by the fuel while it was growing. I.e. there's no *net* increase - the only CO2 you release into the atmosphere is CO2 that was taken out of it when the fuel was grown.

    Oil/gas on the other hand are releasing carbon that was long trapped underground in the form of oil or gas for millenia. So there is a net contribution of CO2 into the atmosphere when you burn these.

    Wood is therefore probably the simplest renewable energy source. Wood burning jet engines are sadly not yet in production though, and I fear the energy density of wood may mean strapping a small forest onto the plane.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Biological solar power plant

    Essentially, algae consumes CO2, producing oxygen and some form of sugar (the fuel to be harvested) Some of it is removed and used to make the biofuel. The biofuel is burned, using up the oxygen produced earlier and producing the same amount of CO2 which was consumed earlier in the process and the same process begins again with new algae growing in the place of that which was removed earlier.

    Harvesting the algae will lead to more CO2 being absorbed, not less. That's the whole point of the process.

  11. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

    RE; Silly question maybe

    Biofuel is carbon neutral IF AND ONLY IF the fertiliser and energy needed to grow and process it are made without using fossil fuels.

    If that condition is met, then biofuel is carbon neutral because the CO2 produced by burning it originally came from the atmosphere. It follows that a 50:50 oil:biofuel aviation fuel is low carbon since only a proportion of it releases CO2 from fossil sources to the atmosphere.

  12. A J Stiles

    @ Edwin

    What my chemistry teacher told me when I was 13 years old:

    * Plants are made (mainly) from carbon.

    * All the carbon in a plant comes from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    * When the plant is burned, the carbon becomes CO2 and returns to the atmosphere.

    As long as you grow plants at the same rate as you're burning them, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere remains the same. However, the moment you burn something that's been underground for millions of years, then the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increases. You'd have to grow a plant and *not* burn it to bring the amount back down. If you decide to try this, though, be aware that decaying organic matter can produce methane -- and a molecule of methane is about 20 times more damaging than the molecule of CO2 you'd end up with if you burned it.

  13. Anonymous Coward

    Of course algae are a carbon sink!

    Of course algae are a CO2 sink, that is precisely the reason they are used for this. The whole point is that growing algae will take CO2 out of the atmosphere which will be released back into the atmosphere when it is used as fuel. It is carbon neutral because the net introduction of CO2 into the atmosphere is 0.

    This is opposed to burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels store CO2 deep in the earth and that CO2 would have stayed there had it not for man extracting it and pumping it (after burning it) into the atmosphere. In which case there is a net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  14. Simon Painter

    Oh dear god...

    yes, algae 'consumes' carbon and this carbon will indeed be released when it is used as fuel. the idea though is that only what was consumed will be released, not carbon that has been locked up for many millions of years

    if we can devote parts of the ocean to cultivating algae then that biomass will absorb carbon which can then later be released in the form of fuel. so long as there is a large quantity of biomass around for the majority of the time the net effect will be that the whole system will lock up quite a bit of carbon and even if there is very little stored at least we are not increasing the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere because whatever we release we will catch again when we grow more algae

    the reason that we have increased CO2 levels is down to the combined efforts of the coal and oil reserves being released into the atmosphere and the reduction in the capacity of the rainforests (the lungs of the earth) to absorb that carbon

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @Algae is a major CO2 sink

    Yes! so if you cultivate it for the production of bio fuels then it reduces the CO2 until the Bio fuel is burnt.

  16. Richard Davis

    @ algae is a major CO2 sink

    The plan is to grow marine phytoplankton (microscopic algae) in large raceway ponds, not harvest natural marine algae. In theory this should be a zero sum game where CO2 taken up during growth is released during burning of the hydrocarbons. The protein the algae produce can be used for livestock feed. The only net loss in the system would be the inorganic nutrients used to grow the algae, such as nitrate. But the deep oceans are full of inorganic nutrients.

    No rewriting of science here, just common sense.

  17. Eugene Goodrich
    Paris Hilton

    Let me be the first to say...

    ... that since they haven't already worked out all the possible shortcomings in this plan, it's a complete waste of time, it's tilting at windmills, it'll do nothing to save the planet, etc..

    Paris because, erm, I'll keep that private, actually.

  18. Simon

    Scum-burning 737 to debut in Texas

    Heh. They could always stop off in Washington to refuel.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's good to see airlines finally burning scum

    Do we get to pick which politicians they burn first or is it a random selction of federal, state and local scum politicians that get burned? Do they throw the scumbag politicians into the jet engines head or feet first? This is the best "green" idea that I have heard of in a long time.

  20. Mike

    Algae..... probably the only viable option, energy from the sun sucks CO2 out of the air into algae which is then converted to biofuel, burnt which then puts the same amount of CO2 back into the air*, but to replace the worlds use of avation fuel with algae biofuel would require a farm the size of northern ireland (even at the most enthusisatic estimates on the fastest growing/highest yeild algae), there was an interesting New Scientist article about it;

    *of course it's not that simple, low altitude CO2 is less of a worry than high altitude CO2, then there's contrails etc. etc.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Hard to grasp eh?

    It's low carbon because people are talking of creating huge algea farms in desert area's (or other high sunshine places) which absorb the CO2 as the algea multiplies so we have algea in a strong enough concentration to be worth harvesting.

    Ideally we'd be using saltwater as we have shitloads of it and nothing to do with it until we start trying to harvest dueterium from it for Tokomaks.

    (well, I might win the lottery and sail around on our useless volume of saltwater for a few years or get brave, become a contractor and save up and then sail. Oh bollox, forgot, recession, plan scuppered!)

    I've never seen articles suggesting harvesting naturally occuring algea would be possible in large quantities let alone cost effective, the idea seems to be sodding great big lakes (shallow ones) or hundreds of miles of enclosed glass pipes, both basking in the sunshine.

    Knock yourself out :

  22. Andy Bright

    No one else sees the irony here?

    That the, well for argument's sake anyway, first eco-friendly plane in the US is flying out of "Bush" International Airport? I'm surprised the current Bush didn't stop it just to keep his reputation intact.

    Here's a scary tidbit for you. Bush Senior thinks Jeb Bush would make a fine President and should perhaps run for office in 2012. I wonder which continent should be crapping itself right now at the prospect of total destabilization by 2016. No need to worry too much I feel, the first two probably still think Africa could use a bit more of a kicking and will direct Bush #3 to proceed accordingly.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't understand this game

    I don't understand this game. Are half a dozen different airlines trying to pointlessly out-green each other? The airlines may be the people who specify the planes and buy the fuel, but it's Boeing and Airbus who make (most of) the planes, and even then, it's not Boeing and Airbus who design and make the engines and specify the fuel, it's a handful of other companies that do that. And it's the engine design, including the control system (which in some cases - eg Rolls Royce - traditionally comes from yet another different company), that determines what fuel they can safely and economically burn in actual service (as distinct from in one-off publicity stunts). And where are the engine companies in this publicity game?

    Most odd.

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Free the (sea)weed!

    Since the Green Meanies Brigade (aka the "Environmental Lobby") are so convinced we are all going to end up swimming in the next six months/ten years/fifteen years/anything else that sounds good at the time(delete as appropriate for intelligence of audience) due to the Global Warming we have caused, perhaps we could use the extra water to grow more pondscum... sorry, Green Meanies... agh, no, sorry again - algae-based Biofuels...

    Or we could minimize our fossil fuel usage to the max (how the frack do they figure that makes sense??) by all going back to living in caves... where we cut down living trees and burnt them on open fires giving off plenty of noxious fumes and icky smoke... but isn't that what they wanted to cut down on anyway??

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    more deception

    RE: "the reason that we have increased CO2 levels is down to the combined efforts of the coal and oil reserves being released into the atmosphere and the reduction in the capacity of the rainforests (the lungs of the earth) to absorb that carbon"

    You've obviously bought into this ecofreak line of crap. The rainforests are NOT the lungs of the earth. Absorbtion of CO2 and the subsequent release of oxygen has only a regional effect, e.g., the U.S. does not rely on South America for its oxygen.

    And according to Dr. Tim Ball, a renowned environmental consultant and former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg, CO2 levels have NOT increased since the industrial age.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Blagojevich powers through Illinois

    Blagojevich = scum and if said scum is used to power an airplane that flies over Illinois, the title would turn out to be true. QED.

  27. J

    All the algae

    "It has been suggested that these fuels displace food production from farmland, driving up food prices and so causing hardship among the poor"

    I'm not conversant with the data on this, and it's definitely a strong possibility, depending on some factors.

    That said, some people were recently blaming the high price of food on the biofuels already, when it was actually just the casino speculation (same for oil). Or why would the prices have come down (still going, I think?) now? People are still eating...

  28. Steve Welsh
    Black Helicopters

    Algae, schmalgae

    And just how much algae, spread over what area, and for how long did it take to produce the fuel for this one flight?

    They never seem to want to tell us that

  29. Charles Manning

    No real food shortage

    For the first time in history, obese people outnumber starving people. There is clearly no global shortage of food.

    Instead agribusiness encounters a shortage of consumption and thus have introduced many wasteful practices such as raising meat in feedlots which takes approx 15-50 food units of input (grain, soy etc) to generate one food unit of output (meat and milk). Reducing milk/meat produced this way by 10% would double the amount of food available. [NB I'm not suggesting a vegan lifestyle, meat raised using more traditional methods tends to use land less useful for raising grain etc and thus livestock form a viable food source.]

    Still, it is daft to put good crop producing land into producing corn/grains for fuel. Far better to use sugar etc which can grow in far more marginal land.

    The reason peeor people get nobbled by this is that they no longer produce their own food. Instead the best land is turned to the production of coffee or khat which is traded for rice and food on the global market. Any disturbance in global food prices hits these people hard.

    Algae is an interesting source, depending on where it comes from. If you're pulling it out of the sea then ou're messing with the food chain. If you grow it on land then you might be replacing farmlands.

  30. Remy Redert


    Well, at the best estimates, it would take an area the size of Northern Ireland and at the expected, more or less average, levels? I don't suppose you've realised just how insanely much ocean this planet has?

    We could cover an area the size of America (The continent, both halves of it) with Algae for fuel production and we'd still have tons of space left over. Hell, start with the Sahara, all of it. You'll have to use some of those algae (or just direct solar power) to pump salt water into your algae farms, but it's not like we're using most of the Sahara for anything.

    With any luck, just covering most of the deserts will produce enough fuel to stop pumping up oil entirely. Add a good deal of the ocean, along with high temperature thorium-fueled pebblebed reactors and we've got an excellent short to mid-term solution. And in hopefully 50 to 60 years, we'll be switching over to fusion reactors.

  31. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    re: Algae.....

    ' to replace the worlds use of avation fuel with algae biofuel would require a farm the size of northern ireland'

    Where I come from (Australia) we call that the back paddock.

    Basically, you need a large are of unused land (or sea), plenty of sunlight and some (salt)water. Not exactly things that are in short supply. The US could manage it, as could parts of Africa, and Australia, of course. The Saudi's might even want to look into it as an alternative to going back to riding camels.

    Sometimes, I despair of the mindless criticism of human ingenuity and this on an IT site.

  32. Steve


    Why isn't hydrogen a good option for planes? OK, I know it's an energy *carrier*, not a source, and has to be created from something, but I'd have thought that logistically it would be easier to use in planes than in road vehicles.

    Planes have a weight, not size, issue, so storage room is less of a problem than for a car. They are refuelled just before departure, so the problem of standing evaporation is much less serious. They don't need a network of filling stations along the route.

    What am I missing?

  33. Frank

    Despair? Amusement?

    Looking at many of the comments above (and in other article comments), I don't know whether to feel despair or amusement at the number of (assumedly) literate people who don't understand the global carbon cycle and can't figure out gross energy/material budget concepts.

    At least, overall, it's not as bad as the reader comments you get in the so-called quality newspapers. The governments and industry have been able to lie and cheat and mislead for so long because people really don't understand the subjects they are fed lies about.

    What the world needs is more education. Unfortunately, what you can teach children in schools is controlled by politicians so they'll never learn to figure things out.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @JonB re: "perhaps even on saltwater"?

    No, seaweed is not necessarily algae. The term "seaweed" tends to include the kelp family, which definitely is not an algae.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @AC : Kelp

    Kelp is of the order phaeophyceae or "brown algae".

    So yes, it is.

    Look at and grep "kelp"

    @Steve: Re: Hydrogen

    Hydrogen requires heavy compressed gas tanks, even at the lower pressures you

    suggest making the energy to weight ratio impractical for aircraft.

    Besides, bio-diesel from algae might be cheaper than hydrogen since the plant itself extracts the energy from the sun rather than having to use solar panels for the hydrogen equivalent.

  36. Tim


    Howcome we're still banging on about carbon, I thought I read that atmospheric water vapour was more to blame for global warming.

    BTW, could we have a couple of obsessive green nutters to contribute to this discussion, I need some post lunch entertainment. Ham n pickle sarnies & steak pie today, BTW.


  37. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    @ "Dr. Tim Ball says: Relax"

    Yawn. One swallow does not make a summer, one scientist does not make a consensus.

    From Dr. Tim Ball: "A warmer Canada would improve our lives in these and other ways too numerous to list. Global warming? Let's hope so". I imagine there are 150 million Bangladeshis that might have some thoughts on that one, Dr. Tim, not to mention the entire population of the Maldives.

  38. Red Bren

    @JonB @@Steve

    "Hydrogen requires heavy compressed gas tanks"

    Why store it in compressed form? Store it at atmospheric pressure and you can use the bouyancy to provide lift. I can't believe no one has thought of this before...

    <-- Mine's the one with Led Zeppelin playing on the ipod

  39. Mike

    Northern Ireland

    > "to replace the worlds use of avation fuel with algae biofuel would require a farm the size of northern ireland"

    To those who thinks that this is simple, think again (or even just think once), firstly this assumes that you have got the highest yeild algae and the "enthusiastic estimates" are vaguely correct, they have yet to be proven over a small scale, secondly, NI isn't exactly small, you'd need methods of containing, harvesting, monitoring etc. who thinks that flooding the sahara is possible?

    >Sometimes, I despair of the mindless criticism of human ingenuity and this on an IT site.

    Who said I was criticising? I think it's worth doing, you can't do anything without mindfully identifying the obsticles first, for example why not give give Australia back to the original inhabitants, I know they messed it up in Africa but maybe Australians should learn from their mistakes when giving the land back to the rightful owners perhaps?

  40. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    re: Northern Ireland

    "why not give give Australia back to the original inhabitants"

    We did that (google Mabo). Worthwhile as that was it did nothing to solve the truly terrible problems of alcoholism and violence that the the indigenous people of Northern Australia suffer from problems that in large part are due to an almost complete lack of economic opportunities. Yes, we need to identify obstacles but it's also good to identify opportunities.

    Btw, the area of Northern Ireland is less than one percent of that of the Northern Territory. Or head a little further south and you'll find Lake Eyre which is only a little smaller than NI. (Not that I'm advocating turning that rather beautiful area into a sludge pond. Better to flood a few cattle stations since livestock produce an obscene amount of greenhouse gas. For example this one: - twice the size of NI)

    PS: did I mention that Australia's big.

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