For the last six months, conical flasks in controlled incubators at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Matunga have been growing different species of micro-algae collected from Mumbai’s coastline.
Scientists at the ICT are searching for algal strains that can be used to develop next generation biofuels, as a green alternative to fossil fuels such as petrol.
“For India, where agriculture is the main occupation, both land and fresh water are very important,” said professor Arvind Lali, head, ICT’s Centre for Energy Biosciences.
“At the same time, increasing number of vehicles will give rise to rapidly growing fuel demands. Availability of biomass in the form of energy crops such as high yield grasses on farmlands or agricultural waste will make it increasingly difficult to meet the growing fuel demand in, say, 2050.”
In the US, there already exist technologies to generate algal biofuels but the cost of production is very high, around Rs500 a litre. India aims to bring down the cost to Rs20 per litre from micro-algae that can be grown on a super scale.
Stephen Mayfield, director, San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, University of California, said: “Countries with a well-trained technological force like India will have an enormous advantage, but only if investments along these lines are made now.”
ICT’s five-year project in collaboration with International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, will genetically modify the best-suited algal strains to increase productivity. The first phase, spanning two years will see an investment of Rs5 crore from the Central government’s Department of Biotechnology.
Once the best strains of algae are indentified, they will undergo genetic modification to change their photosynthetic machinery for efficient carbon dioxide assimilation and growth, followed by cost effective technologiesc for harvesting and conversion to suitable biofuels.
“Marine algae have relatively poor growth rate and biomass yield that will lead to inefficient biofuel production,” said Syed Shams Yazdani, head, Synthetic Biology and Biofuel Group at ICGEB.
“Therefore, we are metabolically engineering the marine algae to improve its growth rate and fat content for biodiesel production,” he said.