Science Direct (Summary) – Sustainability is a key principle in natural resource management, and it involves operational efficiency, minimisation of environmental impact and socio-economic considerations; all of which are interdependent. It has become increasingly obvious that continued reliance on fossil fuel energy resources is unsustainable, owing to both depleting world reserves and the green house gas emissions associated with their use. Therefore, there are vigorous research initiatives aimed at developing alternative renewable and potentially carbon neutral solid, liquid and gaseous biofuels as alternative energy resources. However, alternate energy resources akin to first generation biofuels derived from terrestrial crops such as sugarcane, sugar beet, maize and rapeseed place an enormous strain on world food markets, contribute to water shortages and precipitate the destruction of the world’s forests. Second generation biofuels derived from lignocellulosic agriculture and forest residues and from non-food crop feedstocks address some of the above problems; however there is concern over competing land use or required land use changes. Therefore, based on current knowledge and technology projections, third generation biofuels specifically derived from microalgae are considered to be a technically viable alternative energy resource that is devoid of the major drawbacks associated with first and second generation biofuels. Microalgae are photosynthetic microorganisms with simple growing requirements (light, sugars, CO2, N, P, and K) that can produce lipids, proteins and carbohydrates in large amounts over short periods of time. These products can be processed into both biofuels and valuable co-products.
This study reviewed the technologies underpinning microalgae-to-biofuels systems, focusing on the biomass production, harvesting, conversion technologies, and the extraction of useful co-products. It also reviewed the synergistic coupling of microalgae propagation with carbon sequestration and wastewater treatment potential for mitigation of environmental impacts associated with energy conversion and utilisation. It was found that, whereas there are outstanding issues related to photosynthetic efficiencies and biomass output, microalgae-derived biofuels could progressively substitute a significant proportion of the fossil fuels required to meet the growing energy demand.