Outlook

Under ecological aspects, advantages of microalgal cultures in closed systems are obvious and have been already discussed here. They neither take up arable land nor potable water resources; they can be located on marginal land as well as in buildings downtown used for vertical farming. This means an additional unforeseen advantage of closed systems since they help avoiding the 'palmoil-paradoxon', i.e., tropical deforestation in the name of climate protection.

As second-generation energy plants, microalgae represent an alternative energy source not producing netto CO2. However, this is not a unique qualification. The culture of other second-generation energy plants such as Miscanthus also does not produce netto CO2 provided that cultivation is done without fertilisers and mechanical processing is limited. Nonetheless, assessment of hazards of continuous culture such as plant diseases and exhaustion of nutrients in soil is still unsatisfactory.

On the political level, a decision has to be made to what extent we want to stay dependent on petrofuels that are neither available at a constant price nor accessible to everyone. For some countries, the return to mining coal could be an alternative. As to experts, coal reservoirs exceed by far oil and gas supplies, but it will need a lot of money to (re)activate mining industry and also to establish effective methods not only to catch the CO2 but also to store it away from the biogeochemical cycle.

Another problem that has to be decided by politics is how long we want to keep on using combustion engines for transportation. Is there a realistic chance to replace them by motors driven by electric power, for example? Power plants do not necessarily need petrofuels or biofuels. They can also be driven by biomass. In the context of microalgal cultures, this could mean that production of combustible biomass becomes more important and more demanded by the market than special components in algae. It is also conceivable that microalgal cultures will become part of the trade of CO2 certificates.

The amount of public funding often depends on the number of jobs created and on the influence of pressure groups. Since in most countries, farmers associations are much more influential than the lobby of people growing microalgae, currently public money is primarily spent to support farmers who grow energy plants such as rapeseed or Miscanthus. This has also psychological reasons, because most people are more familiar with flowering plants than with 'slimy' algae. As to the acquisition of venture capital, the situation may be somewhat different.

The plain fact remains that microalgae culture facilities will become a success story only when they deliver their products - be it energy or chemicals - at a competitive price. However, it should also be kept in mind that current major players in alternative energy production such as solar and wind energy are still not competitive and supported by public money. Microalgal technology merits the same chance.

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