Algae as a fuel for planes

Liam Austin has one dream: a sustainable aviation industry

Eugène de Kok, editor HZ Discovery

Student Liam Austin has set himself the goal of making aviation more sustainable. "I love flying and want to keep doing it in the future. That's only possible if we find alternatives to kerosene." According to Liam, algae and seaweed are very suitable as biofuel. Under the supervision of researcher Tanja Moerdijk of the HZ-research group Marine Biobased Specialties, the Aviation Engineering student at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam carried out a feasibility study into the use of macro and micro algae as aviation fuel.

Tanja Moerdijk scratched her head when Liam called her last year with his request to do his minor with her. Making aviation more sustainable is anything but a research theme of the Marine Biobased Specialties chair. Yet she was captivated by Liam's story. She is undoubtedly not the only one. Liam spent the first four and a half years of his life in an orphanage in China. "As a child, you feel trapped in such an orphanage. We all dreamed of America and other countries as places where we wanted to live. You can only get there by plane. We often heard planes flying overhead. For me, that was a sign of freedom. If people would adopt you, you would travel to freedom in an aeroplane. Fortunately, one day I did and I flew to the Netherlands in a beautiful plane."

Guest lecture

Liam never lost his fascination for flying in the Netherlands. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a pilot, but that turned out to be too ambitious. After secondary school, he went to MBO where he studied Aircraft Maintenance. His teachers advised him to go to HBO. He chose Aviation Engineering at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. In the second year, his eyes were opened during a guest lecture on sustainability in aviation. "The lecturer liked the fact that we were optimising components, making engines more economical and other improvements, but, he stressed, the biggest problem in aviation is the dependence on kerosene. That comment triggered Liam. He started to look into making aviation more sustainable and didn't let anything or anyone slow him down. "If you want to continue in the same way and cultivate arable land for biokerosene, you need an area the size of Europe. We don't have that, but there is plenty of water, I thought to myself. That is how I ended up with seaweed and algae as biofuel. That felt like a eureka moment." Some searching on the internet led him to Tanja. Liam gave up his part-time job at the McDonalds and temporarily exchanged the Randstad for a room on the boulevard in Vlissingen. "It was quite a step, but I see this as my future, my career. That's why I absolutely wanted to do it."

Theoretical study

Liam did a theoretical study in consultation with Tanja. He read dozens of articles in the first weeks of his minor on subjects like seaweed, which he only knew from sushi, biokerosene, conversion techniques, scaling up production methods for macro and microalgae, fossil fuels and the attempts to green up traditional companies. His bibliography runs to nine pages. After the reading, he held interviews with several experts, such as Christos Latsos of the Aquaculture in Delta Areas research group of the HZ, several seaweed farmers of North Sea Farmers, the Fuel Quality Manager of KLM and the Supply Chain Analyst of SkyNRG, a company that focuses on sustainable fuel for aviation. They all see great potential in algae as a biofuel, but also see that the cost is still a major obstacle. In the aviation sector, where margins are minimal, these are important. "It is a chicken-and-the-egg story. The aviation industry wants to use biofuel, but it is still too expensive. So they don't do it and there is no demand, so it is not yet profitable to cultivate algae on a large scale, for example."

Biorefinery

In his report, Liam tries to break that vicious circle. One of the options he has explored is biorefinery. "At the moment, it is more economical to use algae in products such as toothpaste and creams than as biofuel. Biorefinery changes that. You then use every part of the algae for different purposes. At the moment, there is still a lot they don't use. Technically it is possible, but it is still very difficult and extremely expensive. You have to be able to scale it up to make it profitable. In the future, you can combine it with multi-species farming, so you can grow algae all year round and make optimal use of farms. Then it will go in the right direction. There are also regulatory problems, and aircraft engines have to be modified if you want to fly on biofuel 100%."

Hurdles

Despite all the hurdles still to be taken, Liam is sure that one day there will be planes that fly on algae. "In Asia, where they already have much more experience with seaweed, you see large sites emerging where they are making millions of litres of biofuel from algae. Those are big steps. In the West, we are still a bit behind, but I am convinced that it will work. It has to, because we cannot continue in the same way. If you do something, try to do it green. I want to make people aware of that."