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Algae: Future of clean energy



LONDON: Driving through the countryside in the south of France, you would probably be charmed by the vineyards and delighted at the thought of drinking fine French wine. But when Rienk Van Grondelle looks at the same view, he envisages something completely different. Where farmers now grow vines or corn to feed animals, he sees a future landscape dotted with red ponds.

The ponds would teem with red algae for the production of “biofuels” — gases and vegetable oils made from organic waste that are considered a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

One day, Van Grondelle speculates, ethanol and butanol will be produced not only from algae but directly from artificial leaves. They would probably not even be green, he adds, but would perform the same task as natural plants: capturing light energy and transforming it into chemical energy.

Van Grondelle, professor of biophysics at VU University Amsterdam, has devoted his life to that crucial moment when light hits a leaf’s surface and triggers a chemical reaction to produce carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water.

Since the 1970s, the study of photosynthesis has made great progress. “Now we can engineer these complexes and figure out, relying on experiments, what changes need to be done to improve their structure and make them better,” says van Grondelle. “We can modify a surface enabling it to capture a wider (range) of the light’s spectrum. This way, the process produces more energy.” He points out plants and algae have evo-lved to produce enough energy to live and reproduce. The first step to solve this efficiency problem is to study very simple organisms such as algae. Photosynthesis in algae is more efficient than that in plants, and you can genetically engineer them to enhance their ability to capture light and convert it into chemical energy.

He admits that it remains difficult to calculate the ultimate efficiency of a photosynthesis-based power plant but the plan is to be producing ethanol and butanol at a competitive price within 10 years.

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