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Durham University

Durham Energy Institute


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.

Download our biofuels research expertise flier.

Research Areas

At Durham our research focusses on several key areas:

Social, economic and policy dimensions of biofuels

Researchers across Durham University are investigating various socio-economic dimensions of biofuels including:

  • Community responses to biofuels, including attitudes to GM in biofuels
  • investment decisions
  • governance of biofuels and structures shaping adoption of biofuels
  • Ethics and intellectual property issues

(Dr Mike Adcock, Law Department; Dr Sandra Bell, Anthropology; Prof Harriet Bulkeley, Geography; Dr Chris Greenwell, Earth Sciences and Chemistry; Dr Victoria Wells, Business School).

Marine Biofuels

Microalgae are fast growing single celled organisms which produce a relatively high lipid yield suitable for conversion to biodiesel and green diesel. Researchers from across the university (including Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Anthropology and Business Studies Department) are investigating different aspects of developing, enhancing and introducing marine biofuels. This includes research on the:

  • modification of microalgae to produce i) higher lipid yields, ii) better processing routes for lipid extraction, and iii) well defined lipid profiles.
  • conversion of microalgae lipids into useful chemical compounds for fuels, lubricants and other uses, for instance converting microalgae into Biodiesel production using by photosynthetic microbes

(Dr John Bothwell, Biology; Prof Phil Dyer, Chemistry; Dr Chris Greenwell, Earth Sciences and Chemistry; Prof Keith Lindsey, Biology)

Read Chris Greenwell’s blog in The Conversation on The next ‘black gold’ may be green

Biofuels, Science and Society

Biofuels, Science and Society is a sub-theme within the Institute of Advanced Study to address wide ranging technical and social issues concerning biofuels including attitudes to GM in the biofuels area and the ethics of biofuels. 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.

Enhanced yields of biofuels

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 (Cellulosic Crops) through improved biomass, starch and oil accumulation and resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses (Prof Keith Lindsey, Biology).

There are a range of projects concerning the production, use and impacts of biofuels ongoing at Durham University:

Research Projects: 

  • Potential use of heather, Calluna vulgaris, as a bioenergy crop (PI Prof Fred Worrall). More ifnromation on the project findings.
  • Macroalgae Biogas for the Isle of Man (2013 -) will assess the 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.
  • MacroBioCrude (2013 – 2018): The EPSRC-funded £1.6M project is looking at the gasification of preserved macroalgae and ensiling seaweeds to convert wet seaweed into a more energy-dense fuel source (PI Phil Dyer, Chris Greenwell).
  • SuBBSea: This BBSRC-funded project is pioneering selective non-GM breeding studies as part of RCUK’s Anglo-Indian initiative, to improve the composition of seaweed feedstocks. We’re also developing new microbial platforms to manipulate and process seaweed biomass for fermentation and anaerobic digestion.
  • Energetic Algae: The EU-funded project links with European partners to look at the environmental and societal issues that surround seaweed cultivation in NW Europe.
  • Developing pathways for biofuels: governing energy technologies in transition. A DEI PhD studentship (Katie Thompson, 2010-2013). to investigate how and why some biofuels fail as technologies while others succeed by looking at biofuels as socio-technical systems.
  • Biofuels in China - regulation and policy (Ms F Liu)
  • Biogas from wastes and fuel crops. Prof Mike Theodorou (visiting chair) is recognised internationally for his pioneering studies is an expert in anaerobic digestion technologies.
  • 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 Centre for Process Innovation PhD CASE studentship to study macroalgae conversion chemistries (Dr Greenwell, Prof Theodorou, Dr Dyer).Catalytic Pyrolysis of Macroalgae. Jack Rowbotham, (2011 -2014) is also a DEI Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy student.
  • Biofuels ethics and potential for Transport (Dr Mike Adcock). Read the final report of the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics Biofuels Working Party of which Dr Mike Adcock hasd been a memeber looking at the ethical issues surrounding the possible introduction of future generation biofuels.