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Humble algae could be our saviour

By Roger Kalla - posted Wednesday, 30 November 2005

We are approaching a time of limited supplies of oil and gas in Australia. It is time we started to think of alternative sources of fuel for our cars. We should look into the diesel engine technology coupled with a novel source of fuel that doesn’t compete with the production of food.

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas Australia was officially launched in Perth on November 21. At the press conference, Swedish Professor Kjell Aleklett had the following dire predictions for global oil supply:

“We face a permanent shortfall in global oil supply (peak oil) which is inevitable and imminent,” he said. “Long-term oil shortages are likely, followed by very steep price rises, petrol rationing and economic downturns,” he concluded.


The message from Professor Aleklett was that we need to prepare now for a future where we lessen the dependence on oil.

The issue is not one of "running out" of oil so much as it is one of not having enough oil to keep our economy, our trucks, cars and buses running.

Already we are seeing sales of “Toorak tractors” with gas guzzling six or eight cylinder petrol engines under the pump. New motor vehicle sales fell 6.7 per cent in October compared to last year. Sales of four-wheel drives dropped even more, down by 11.9 per cent as higher petrol prices turned buyers away.

However there is a solution for Australia’s oil dependence and it is relying on technology that has been with us for more than 100 years, combined with new sources of fuel to feed it.

The inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, originally conceived the diesel engine to enable independent craftsmen and artisans to compete with large industry. In order to do so, he created an efficient engine that would be fuelled by locally-sourced vegetable oil. The first diesel engine - fuelled by peanut oil - ran on August 10, 1893 in Augsburg, Germany.

Vegetable oil, or bio-diesel as it is now known, can go into the same fuel distribution infrastructure, replacing petroleum diesel wholly or partly.


The manufacture of bio-diesel involves a chemical process called "transesterification" where triacyl glycerol and methanol is mixed and heated. This releases glycerol and the esters of the fatty acids. This reaction is catalysed by a base or acid. Recent development of a carbon powder catalyst makes this process more environmentally friendly and more efficient and provides the means for large-scale production of bio-diesel (Toda et al. "Biodiesel made with sugar catalyst" Nature 438:178).

There is one major drawback with bio-diesel though. It places a non-food use for vegetable oil in direct competition with the use of the oilseed crop as food: and we have only got a limited amount of land on which to grow crops.

The European Union wants 6 per cent of the oil used to fuel their cars to be bio-diesel by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020. (The European Union, May 8, 2003. Directive 2003/30/EC).

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About the Author

Dr Roger Kalla is the Director of his own Company, Korn Technologies, and a stakeholder in Australia’s agricultural biotechnology future. He is also a keen part time nordic skier and an avid reader of science fiction novels since his mispent youth in Arctic Sweden. Roger is a proud member of the Full Montes bike riding club of Ivanhoe East.

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