Through taking up carbon dioxide and converting it to biomass which may be used as a fuel, plants and algae have been investigated as a source of carbon neutral energy for many years. Critcially, biofuels offer a short-to-medium term route to a road transport fuel which many other renewable energies can not provide without significant changes to existing transport infrastructure.
Biofuels covers a range of technologies, either where biological material is readily converted to an energy source, or living organisms produce a fuel source. Biofuels may be gaseous (biogas such as methane, or biohydrogen), liquid (bioethanol and biobutanol as petrol replacements; biodiesel and green diesel for diesel replacements), or even solid (fast growing and coppiced trees, algae biomass etc).
Biofuels present several challenges to society, for example: use of water supplies, displacement of food crop land, changes to traditional lifestyles, biodiversity loss, nutrient costs and provision. The acceptance of biofuel technologies has been directly influenced by societal perceptions, as well as policy direction.
Biofuels, Science and Society
The programme draws on the exceptional interdisciplinarity of Durham University, to bring together the various factions relevant to the biofuel debate, including policy advisers, economists, social scientists, psychologists, geographers, legal experts as well as biologists, engineers and chemists.
At Durham our research focusses on several key areas:
Microalgae Biofuels (Greenwell)
Microalgae are fast growing single celled organisms which produce a relatively high lipid yield suitable for conversion to biodiesel and green diesel. Research in our Biology Department focusses on modification of microalgae to produce i) higher lipid yields, ii) better processing routes for lipid extraction, iii) well defined lipid profiles. In the Chemistry Department, research is underway into the conversion of microalgae lipids into useful chemical compounds for fuels, lubricants and other uses.
Cellulosic Crops (Lindsey)
In the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, the Centre for Crop Improvement Technology is applying basic techniques of plant molecular biology and biochemistry to develop new crops that have enhanced yields through improved biomass, starch and oil accumulation and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses.
We are currently investigating aspects of biofuel organism intellectual property (Adcock, Law Department) and social pressures on biofuel policy (Bell, Anthropology; Bulkeley, Geography; Stone, Business School; Greenwell, Chemistry).
There are a range of projects concerning the production, use and impacts of biofuels ongoing at Durham University:
- Macroalgae Biogas for the Isle of Man (2013 -) will assess growth of microalgae in four key sea zone areas around the IoM coastline and undertake technological feasibility studies to address public acceptability and stakeholder perceptions of using this to generate biogas for the local domestic gas market.
- BioAlgaeSorb (EU FP 7, 2011-2013) looks at waste stream remediation by microalgae and the processing of the biomass into useful chemicals and fuels. Dr Chris Greenwell's group is involved in the conversion of the biomass.
- Mineral catalysed deoxygenation reactions of biomass (KiOR Inc, 2008-2011) looked at the use of oxide catalysts to convert biooils through to fuel products (Dr Greenwell).
- Biofuels, Science & Society is a theme funded by the Institute of Advanced Studies and brings together Law, Psychology, Chemistry, Biology, Earth Sciences, Durham Business School, Anthropology and Geography to address wide ranging technical and social issues concerning biofuels. A summer internship is investigating attitudes to GM in the biofuels area (Dr Greenwell, Prof Lindsey).
- Biofuels as socio-technical systems (2010-2013). A Durham Energy Institute PhD studentship to investigate how and why some biofuels fail as technologies while others succeed.
- Biogas from wastes and fuel crops. Prof Mike Theodorou is an expert in anaerobic digestion technologies and is co-funded by Durham University and the Centre for Process Innovation.
- Sustaining the macroalgae supply chain (2010-2012). This project looked at methods for sustaining supplies of macroalgae for bioenergy and bioproducts (Dr Greenwell, Prof Theodorou).
- Microalgae as biomass source for fuels, chemicals and remediation (2011-2014). A PhD studentship starting in 2011 (Dr Greenwell, Prof Theodorou, Dr Dyer).