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Algal fuels key to nation's energy independence

By Julian Cribb - posted Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Just days into a major Middle East or Southeast Asian conflict, Australian cars and trucks could be immobilised, public transport overwhelmed and supplies of life-saving medications would begin running out.

Within a week, shops would be stripped of food and farmers' tractors would be silent.

"Essentially, our society as we know it would cease to function," says former Royal Australian Air Force deputy chief John Blackburn in a recent NRMA report, warning of Australia's extreme vulnerability to an overseas fuel supply disruption.


About 85 per cent of Australia's transport fuel now comes from overseas, as either refined or crude product. This dependency will rise sharply as domestic oil refineries close in the next 24 months. In a country spoiled for energy choices, transport fuels are our Achilles heel.

Australia's official policy, in the event of a global oil crisis, is to rely on world markets. Almost alone among 25 OECD countries, we have no national strategic oil reserve. We do not accurately know how large our fuel stocks are or who owns them. According to the NRMA, our fuels pipeline contains just 23 days of total national transport energy consumption.

Australian fuel policy is essentially a gamble that there will be no more oil shocks like those of 1973, 1979, 1990, 2008 or 2012, or any major conflict in either the Middle East or Southeast Asia, which could choke off our seaborne supplies of fuel. As risks go, it is low probability but very high impact.

For example, it requires roughly 80,000 truck movements a week to deliver Australia's food supplies, most of which would cease within a few days of a serious fuel disruption. Fresh produce would run out in seven days, dried goods within nine, says the NRMA report. (In reality, they ran out in two to three days when flooding cut off the Sunshine Coast in 2011, due to panic buying.)

The good news is that there is now emerging a way in which Australia need never risk its fuel or food security again. We can be 100 per cent self-reliant in both, forever. The answer is to grow our own transport fuels in Australia, using our largest yet most neglected free energy source, sunlight, and nature's own little oil refineries, algae or water plants.

Algae can yield 60 to 160 tonnes of "fresh" oil per hectare of salt water pond. This means Australia's entire transport fuel needs can be produced from an area no larger than a single big sheep station or 0.03 per cent of our sovereign land and sea area.


Closed systems can yield 10 times as much. All you need is sunlight, saltwater, low-value land and a nutrients source such as the $3 billion worth of food we now chuck away each year or the CO2 that belches out of our power stations.

Barack Obama thinks enough of this idea to invest $500 million in algal biofuel research for the US navy and air force. Last year Canada flew an aircraft on pure biofuels. More than 20 advanced and newly industrialised nations are investing in algal biofuels research and production systems.

The world's leading airlines are backing algae because they do not trust fossil oil. Even in Australia, a dozen universities and start-ups are experimenting with different approaches, and there are pilot plants at Karratha, in Western Australia, Tarong in Queensland and Nowra in NSW.

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This article was first published in The Australian on April 18, 2013.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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