“We need solutions that go straight from CO2 to fuel, and we need these to work on a very large scale (…) Speeding up the development of these technologies is crucial if we are to decarbonise aviation” Interview Pia Lindberg, Uppsala University

Pia Lindberg from Uppsala University speaks in this interview about its role and challenges within the ALFAFUELS project.

Q: Uppsala University plays an important role in the ALFAFUELS project, especially in the Model-driven optimization of jet fuel precursors production from CO2 in cyanobacteria, could you tell us the objectives of these tasks and how it is related to the rest of the partner’s activities?

A: Our work at Uppsala University has three main areas. One is developing new strains of photosynthetic bacteria which can make fuel precursor molecules from CO2, another is finding ways to use chemical reactions driven by sunlight to make fuel out of those molecules. By combining photo-biological production and photo-driven fuel synthesis we get a process which can make a fuel from CO2 and water, using sunlight as an energy source. The third area at Uppsala University is hydrogen production from green algae, which is also driven by sunlight.

Other partners will work on ways to optimise and upscale the processes of bacteria cultivation and photochemistry, for example by investigating how it is best to grow the bacterial cells, or how we can capture the fuel molecules from the cells in the most efficient way. Others also work on how we can use the biomass that is left when the fuel has been produced. This is important since the process will require some energy input and nutrients for the bacteria, and if we can also use the biomass that is made, the whole process becomes much more efficient.

Q: Your organisation is also in charge of leading the model-driven optimization of the co-production of hydrogen and starch in microalgae, could you easily explain how these activities contribute to the development of sustainable aviation fuels?

A: When the fuel precursor molecules have been made by the photosynthetic bacteria, and then combined using photochemistry, they still need one last step before they can be used as a fuel: hydrogenation. This changes the fuel to be more stable and have the right combustion properties, which is extra important since we are aiming at making jet fuel. Hydrogenation requires a supply of hydrogen gas, and since we want the final fuel to be environmentally sustainable, the hydrogen must also be sustainably produced. This is where the green algae come in – they can use water and light to generate clean hydrogen. Starch will be produced as a valuable by-product.

Q: Since you are very involved in the technical development of the project, what are the current barriers to solving in order to decarbonise the aviation industry?

A: I think the biggest challenge is that there is not enough incentive for changing to fossil-free fuels. If there was a high enough price for using fossil fuels, alternatives would be developed faster. Technically, there are many ways of producing fuels – but presently used technologies for bio-jet fuel are relying on waste biomass and are limited by availability of biomass for fuel production. We need solutions that go straight from CO2 to fuel, and we need these to work on a very large scale. It could be done by some form of electro-fuels based on carbon capture and renewable electricity, or by direct biotechnology processes such as ours. Speeding up the development of these technologies is crucial if we are to decarbonise aviation. 

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