Swimming in fuel

The same algae that turns a swimming pool green and nasty could one day fuel your bakkie, says University of Cape Town chemical engineering doctoral student Melinda Griffiths.

Each microscopic life form contains a tiny drop of oil, which can be harvested with relative ease, she told 150 female high school learners at a Women’s Day event at the MTN Sciencentre in Cape Town.

‘The algae grows so fast, two weeks until harvesting, and it doesn’t take up much space. The oil can be extracted in an hour and converted to biodiesel in a couple of hours,’’ she said.

Griffiths was speaking at a series of talks for young women scientists organised by Element Six industrial diamond makers and South African Women in Science and Engineering.

‘We think this is going to be a fantastic way of making biofuel,’’ said Griffiths, showing a picture of a possible algae farm of the future. ‘We get vegetable oil from soybeans, sunflowers and canola so why not fuel oil from algae?’’

After all, she said, it’s better to use fresh plants rather than rely on old plants—which died millions of years before dinosaurs roamed the land—because fossil fuels will not last forever.

And the carbon cycle using this form of fuel has more benefits for our overheated atmosphere. ‘Harvest algae and save the world,’’ said Griffiths.

Of course, there are still many technical challenges to be overcome by the team at UCT’s Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research—including that the algae is so small it clogs filters.

Other speakers included UCT chemistry researcher Denise Saravanakumar, who is investigating 20 local species of seaweed with promising chemical compounds that might help in the design of new drugs, and geologist Thakane Ntholi.

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