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Europe is facing a 20% shortfall in the supply of diesel by 2015. Why do we care? Because diesel is used by pretty much nearly everyone who wants to get somewhere or move something.

In fact, last year, the vast majority of new car owners opted for diesel engines rather than petrol. So somehow, we have got to come up with more diesel or God forbid, we will have to walk somewhere.

A company called Green Biofuels Ireland (GBI) is trying to address this deficit. Their processing plant is now up and running in New Ross, Co Wexford, trying to catch up with demand. As such, GBI operates one of the world’s most efficient biofuel plants. In just this one facility alone it is hoped that the diesel it produces for drivers who opt out of petrol will see a reduction in CO2 emissions. It will be the equivalent of taking around 20,000 cars off the road each year. And that is just the stats for starting out. Soon they plan to produce 34 million litres of fuel a year. If they reach that amount, it means that around 40,000 cars’ worth of CO2 emissions would be killed off per annum.


The idea to use biodiesel or vegetable oils as a fuel for diesel engines is more than a hundred years old. It was first proposed by Dr. Rudolf Diesel himself in the early 1900s. One prototype of his new engine presented at the World’s Exhibition in Paris in 1900 ran on a fuel derived from peanut oil. However due to the discovery of cheaper mineral oils, interest in the use of fuels made from plant oils died out. Although there were some attempts to use renewable sources of fuel during the Second World War. However along came the 1970s and the realisation that a worldwide oil crisis was coming. And there was a growing ecological awareness which recreated an interest in using plant oils and animal fats as possible alternatives to hydrocarbon-based fuels. We have a fleet of hippies to thank for this.



A rapeseed crop destined for use as biofuel


Biodiesel has been produced on an industrial scale in the European Union since 1992. Today, there are approximately 120 plants in the EU, mainly located in Germany, Italy, Austria, France and Sweden. And now, of course, Ireland.

So what is so good about biodiesel? It is a clean-burning alternative to mineral diesel fuel. It is produced from renewable resources such as animal fats and vegetable oils. These can include soy bean oil, palm oil, tallow (animal fat), and used cooking oils. In the case of used cooking oils, the green credentials are a no-brainer. This is because the used oil would just be dumped anyway. However recycling it and making it into biodiesel is a great example of saving the environment a lot of pain.


But there has been controversy attached to the other kind of biodiesel. This is because some groups have argued that using land for fuel rather than food crops leads to less food. And this especially affects poorer countries. Some groups say that once you clear land and farm it, the C02 footprint becomes just as annoying as with normal fuel. At present, biodiesel production uses around 3 million hectares of arable land in the EU, so it is a large-scale project. While that seems like big numbers, we still need MORE diesel. And there is only so much arable land that can be used for growing crops to produce the bulk of the oils used to make biodiesel.


A happy alternative is using algae to make the biodiesel. This raw material does not take up arable land for its production. And surprisingly, Ireland is a great place to grow this goopy stuff. If it all goes to plan, in around a decade or so, we will be filling up our hungry car tanks with biodiesel made from Irish algae. This is currently under study at Indoor Algal Experimental Units at the Daithi O’Murchu Marine Research Station located on the Sheeps Head Penninsula, 90km from Cork City. There are wild hopes for the experiments going on here. If predictions from small scale production experiments are realised then using algae to produce bio-fuel may be the only viable method by which to produce enough bio-fuel to replace current world petrol and diesel usage. Micro-algae in particular have much faster growth-rates than terrestrial crops. The yield of oil from algae is estimated to be from 19,000 to 75,000 litres per acre, per year; this is 7 to 31 times greater than the next best crop, oil of palm. It is promising stuff.

The process of extracting algal-oil and converting it to biofuel is similar to that for land-based crops.  The difficulties in efficient bio-fuel production from algae lie not in the extraction process but in finding a species with a high lipid/carbohydrate content and fast growth rate, and a cost-effective cultivation system (for micro-algae) that is best suited to that species. But have faith. It will all be worked out soon. Everything will be okay.

All algae needs is light to thrive. And here is the best advantage that Ireland has – long days in summer. And more good news, we are not too hot. And algae grow well in the great outdoors, getting rid of the need to build big, huge, expensive indoor farms. But it is the dark winter months that proven to be tricky. Currently the research station is asking how they can make the winter come good. Irish people have been asking themselves that since the dawn of time.

For now, conventional bio-diesel will have to suffice. And anyway there are advantages of using biodiesel. Using bio-diesel blends makes an improvement in lubricity, which reduces wear in the engines. Biodiesel is a clean-burning fuel which runs in any diesel engine. This fuel is an environmentally-friendly alternative to the higher emission petroleum diesel used in large transport vehicles and some cars and trucks. On any vehicle newer than 1995, no modifications are necessary to use biodiesel. Some vehicles older than 10 years old have rubber fuel lines, which will be degraded over time by biodiesel. In those vehicles it is necessary to change the fuel lines. But pretty much, we may all be thrust along on algae power and soon.

Green Biofuels Ireland is a partner with the Daithi O’Murchu Marine Research Station, so hopefully in the near future we will be filling our cars with biofuel made from algal oil. I just hope my lovely heap of a car doesn’t smell seaweedy when algae-powered. Wait a minute, it already does, and I use petrol.

For more on Green Biofuels Ireland see

For more info on algal biodiesel, see


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