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Institute of Advanced Study

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture

Speaker: Professor Kevin Flynn

Date: 1 December 2011

Time: 5.30pm

Venue: The Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College

Title: Energy from microalgae: biofuels dream or environmental nightmare?

Over hundreds of millions of years microalgae have changed the face of Earth, replacing an atmosphere rich in CO2 with one rich in O2. In doing so they have contributed to the formation of limestone (White Cliffs of Dover style), which we exploit little, and to the formation of oil and natural gas, which we are busy extracting and burning as fuel to such an extent that we see measurable increases in atmospheric CO2. Microalgae also drive the marine food chain to fisheries, while on the down side they can on occasion produce harmful algal blooms that can decimate whole ecosystems and even kill humans. The concept of using microalgae in a controlled fashion to produce fuel (biofuel) is not new. It is proclaimed by some as a potential major alternative to replace fossil fuels, but many challenges remain. In this talk we will consider these challenges, why the generation of genetically modified (GM) microalgae may hold the key to success, why such GM crops may be unstable, and yet how if we make them stable we could generate the perfect harmful bloom species. Dream or nightmare - how far do we meddle with Nature to fuel our needs?