The Bath algae grow in water as hot as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. It could therefore help researchers crack one of the major challenges of algae-based biofuel development: finding a strain of algae that can withstand that sort of heat.
Then, biofuel producers could grow algae in deserts, where land use would not pre-empt crops for food, according to the researchers from the University of Bath.
“Algae are usually happiest growing at temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees F) and that can limit the places in which it can be cultivated on a large scale. Areas where these ideal conditions are available also usually make good arable areas and are therefore needed for food production,” PhD student Holly Smith-Baedorf said in a press release.
The research team, which includes collaborators from the University of the West of England in nearby Bristol, is examining 7 different strains of algae that thrive in the baths, used by tourists today and by ancient Romans some 2,000 years ago.
They are growing the various strains at different temperatures and comparing them to ‘control’ algae known for producing biodiesel at normal temperatures, the press release states.
“The results of this study will help us identify whether there is a particular algae species among the seven identified in the Roman Baths that is well adapted to growing at higher temperatures and also suitable for producing sufficient amounts of biodiesel to make wide-scale production viable,” said Professor Rod Scott.
The team is also trying to identify algae that have an easily penetrable cell wall, that have high oil content, and that do not require a lot of energy to filter.
“There are a lot of variables that need to be right in order for the wide-scale production of biodiesel from algae to be viable, which is why it is important for us to classify and test as many species from the Roman Baths as possible,” said Scott.
“One species might produce a lot of oil, but if we can’t harvest the algae or break the cell walls easily then the production costs of the biodiesel will rise and it will no longer be a suitable alternative to other fuels.”
Wide scale deployment would provide a potentially eco-friendly alternative to hydrocarbons that, like electric motors and hydrogen, could slash automobiles’ carbon emissions. It could help mitigate the competition for land posed by some of today’s plant-based biofuels, which can rob people of vital food and water.
Image of Morte de Cesare by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798: Wikimedia Commons