WITHIN 15 years, Irish drivers will be filling up their vehicles with biofuel made from Irish grown algae, according to Julie Maguire, of Daithi O'Mhurchu Marine Research Station (DOMRS) in Bantry, which is set to become Ireland's first commercial algae production facility for biofuel.
The Co Cork based research facility, which began experimenting with growing algae three years ago funded by a Marie Curie grant from the EU, is now preparing a business plan to go fully commercial as an algae producer when the grant expires in just over a year.
According to Ms Maguire, the facility's project manager, the centre has thus far been focused on selecting the most oil productive strain of algae for Irish conditions, as well as creating the ideal conditions for them to grow in. The facility produces algae in cycles from a series of six metre square shallow tanks using selected algae cultures.
"All you need for algae is light," Ms Maguire explained. "Ireland has proven to have some excellent advantages for algae growth. First of all, we're not too hot, like some of those countries which have thus far been leading the field.
"Second, because of our geographical positioning, we can benefit from longer hours of daylight. What it means, is that we're more equipped for algae growth than many countries through the summer months."
Irish algae crops appear to be doing best in outdoor locations, thus eliminating the need for expensive, built accommodation. According to Ms Maguire, the main obstacles remaining are finding more efficient ways of harvesting the algae and encouraging growth in winter months.
"We aim to grow, harvest and process the fuel on site. So the processing work to make the biofuel can be done in the darker months," she said.
Globally, algae is being viewed as a late starter but potential winner in the race to find viable replacements for fossil fuels. While biofuels are already in mainstream usage throughout the world, they have shown themselves to be a drain on land and soil resources.
In contrast, algae can be grown in water with very little power and less land resources. The US Department of Energy has estimated that replacing petroleum completely with algal biofuel would take up one seventh of the land currently devoted to growing corn there.
The Marine Research Station currently has seven partners on board including two Turkish universities as well as Green Biofuels Ireland, which operates one of the world's most efficient biofuel plants at New Ross.