Developing biofuels from a plantlife that provides half the planet’s biomass is an attractive but challenging prospect as these plants, macro and micro algae, grow not on land but in the earth’s oceans.
The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), sited at Dunstaffnage, on the west coast of Argyll, is investigating production of biofuel from seaweeds (macroalgae) and single-celled microalgae.
SAMS is working to identify the most suitable seaweed species, in relation to growth rates and fuel conversion, as well as harvesting and farming methods, fermentation and digestion procedures. Scale-up rates for various options are also being explored.
With the European Parliament calling for 10% of road transport fuel to come from renewable sources by 2020, algae may provide an ideal biofuel crop. They grow quickly, need little maintenance and do not compete for landspace like forestry or agriculture, which currently produces most of the world’s biofuel from sugar cane and maize.
Microalgae oils have already shown strong potential for biofuel production and SAMS is well positioned to explore this further, by screening species from amongst its culture collection of Algae and Protozoa which is one of the world’s largest.
SAMS is an academic partner in UHI Millennium Institute (UHIMI), the prospective University of the Highlands and Islands, and is a collaborative centre of the Natural Environment Research Council. With specialists including bio-geochemists, microbial ecologists, molecular biologists and marine physicists, it is also engaged across other areas including Arctic research and marine policy development.
In April 2009, SAMS became the lead scientific partner in a €6 million research project launched by Scottish Energy Minister, Jim Mather MSP, to address algal biomass conversion into biofuels. The BioMara project is a collaborative project between Scottish and Irish researchers and funded by the EU, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and The Crown Estate. Other partners are Strathclyde, Queen's and Ulster universities, and the Dundalk Institutes of Technology in Dundalk and Sligo.
BioMara is exploring development of “mari-fuels” of biodiesel, bioethanol and biomethane, looking also at implications such as technologies and economics of production and environmental impacts.
Another of SAMS’ collaborations, to help take forward another renewables sector – marine energy – is with lead partner the Environmental Research Institute (ERI), based further north at Thurso in Caithness. ERI and SAMS are undertaking the Marine Renewable Energy and the Environment (MaREE) research programme. This £4m project will look into aspects such as grid constraints, design expertise, environmental impacts and synergies between the oil and renewable industries.
Marine energy conversion, technical and operational issues are high on the region’s research agenda not least because of its disproportionate share of Europe’s total tidal and wave resource.
Here, ERI is also well placed – being sited right on the Pentland Firth and Britain’s foremost tidal current resource – to explore issues of energy capacity, in terms of tidal, wave and offshore wind, and also of potential threats from extreme weather and ocean conditions.
Heriot Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT), based at Stromness in the Orkney Islands and reaching its 20th birthday in 2009, has put together a broad research programme embracing several areas considered crucial to help inform the marine energy sector’s future progress.
ICIT’s programme, entitled Marine Renewables Energy Development in Scotland (MREDS), programme is designed to leverage direct contributions from industry, to run specific pieces of research in a number of “workpackages” or areas of focus. These include constraints and opportunities for grid connections, seen as a major potential limiting factor as new volumes of locally-produced energy are delivered.
MREDS also addresses potential for ‘extreme environments’ learning between the petroleum and renewables industries, and reduction and management of project risk in deploying and operating marine devices. Development of design expertise and guidelines around the hydrodynamics and other implications of moorings for marine energy devices is another focus area.
Heriot Watt is a member of the Supergen Marine Consortium – along with Queens, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Lancaster Universities – which is driving research in areas including design implications for mixed tidal and wave environments, and challenges in predicting long-term marine energy systems’ reliability. UHIMI partners SAMS and ERI have also created six PhD positions, as affiliates to Supergen, to research topics including habitat and environmental implications of marine energy production.
Based in offices beside those of ICIT in Stromness is the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), a world leader in testing full-scale, grid-connected prototype devices wave and tidal devices. EMEC achieved a world first at its Orkney wave test site, when Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power generated electricity to the National Grid from its deepwater floating device. Later, Dublin-based OpenHydro was first to install a device generating electricity for the grid at the tidal test site.
Beside its main task of working with individual developers to monitor their own proprietary devices, EMEC runs other distinct research activity. This includes “MetOcean” monitoring to collect data on current and wave behaviour in varying weather, to help inform device design and assessment.
Environmental implications of renewable energy are an essential, and growing, research area, not least for EMEC. Its activities here, usually run with other partners and funders, take in issues such as surface and sub-surface interactions between wildlife and marine devices, and monitoring acoustic output from tidal devices.
Back at the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso’s North Highland College, scientists are looking at both the natural and social environments to help inform sustainable and sympathetic energy industry development.
Lead partner with SAMS in the above-mentioned MaREE programme, ERI also aims to improve and integrate knowledge of relationships between energy generation, energy saving and communities in the area.
Socio-economic issues, including how marine energy can develop alongside other existing activities such as fisheries, tourism and conservation, form another distinct “workpackage” within Orkney-based ICIT’s MREDS programme.
Based in one of Britain’s remotest communities, at Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, the Lews Castle College is running the Greenspace Research programme to explore renewable energy, energy efficiency and low carbon building technologies with the emphasis on informatics, or improved information data handling.
This approach is reflected in Greenspace’s energy and buildings project to combine factors from energy analysis software, through building systems to buildings management and use. Energy transmission and storage challenges, the natural environment and energy economics, including “low carbon Hebrides” issues, are also key research projects at the college which, like ERI and SAMS, is also tied into UHI, the emergent University of the Highlands and Islands.
In an even more remote location, on the UK’s most northerly island of Unst in Shetland, sits a project which a number of academic and other bodies are using to research hydrogen as a renewable energy source that is often cited as possibly the greatest long-term.
The Pure Energy Centre is Britain’s only research facility with on-site access to a working renewable hydrogen system. This provides zero-emission, locally generated off-grid power to a small industrial estate on the island. The centre incorporates hydrogen and thermal energy storage facilities and is also the fuelling station for the first road-licensed renewable hydrogen fuel cell powered car in the UK.
Since 2006, PURE has worked with off-grid energy and renewable hydrogen developments across the world, often with communities with little or no transmission infrastructure and seeking solutions to local energy insecurity.
And hydrogen is one of several niche areas for UHI’s Energy Research Group, set up in 2009 under Dr Mike Weston, with business development manager Damian Collins, to assist the development of energy research and training throughout the UHI partnership.
Their other priority sectors include marine and wind energy, low carbon built environment, marine and land-based biomass, community renewable energy and other related environmental and policy fields. Part of the group’s role will be to seek out relevant businesses to explore joint working initiatives.