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In a popular tourist town on the Kenya coast ecalled Watamu, there are piles of seaweeds on the sandy beach in certain time of the year. Due to climate change, the seasonal fluctuations of nature are becoming unpredictable. It is expected that in November there should not be any more seaweeds present; however this is not the case in reality. Under the hot sun of November, the big chunk of the dark green mass produces an enormously unpleasant smell. One of the hotels on the coastline even closed as the ocean currents bring all the seaweeds near its front door.


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Walking on the white sandy beach, I immediately thought of utilizing such natural resource to make algal fuels. Why waste this great renewable resource while hampering the local tourism business? The whole town’s yearly avenue is dependent on the tourism in the peak seasons. The locals cherish their environment as this is the key to a good tourism business; thus they see seaweeds more as a threat than a resource. If managed well, the local people could harvest the algal fuel during the off-peak season and clean up the beach. This creates job opportunities on site and boost local economy. The biodegradable fuel, in turn, can be used in the tourism boats and in turn produce less pollution to the ocean water. In terms of technologies, Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in NTNU’s, tried to produce oil from seaweeds using a technique called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, which creates a bio-oil yield of 79%.

When talking about algae biofuels, the past 30 years have been focused more on microalgae. The algae fuel is a sexy one comparing with other oil-based biofuels. Algae has all the desired traits of an ideal energy crop: high oil content, grows fast and is efficient in terms of converting solar energies. “Besides the potential for much higher yields, algae fuel is still cleaner than petroleum, as the marine plants devour carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Agriculturally, algae flourishes in a wide range of habitats, from ocean territories to wastewater environment. It isn’t hazardous like nuclear fuel, and it is biodegradable, unlike solar panels and other mechanical interventions. It also doesn’t compete with food supplies and, again, is similar enough to petrol that it can be refined just the same using existing facilities.[1]

Surely one would think the Watamu case presented above is just a rudimentary idea, but what is behind the idea is a community-based, small scale algae micro farm. For algae, large commercial scale still needs to take decades to come even given the significant secured funding basis. While pilot scale initiatives have been tested worldwide, and most of the challenges facing algae biofuel are not applicable when grown on a small scale. With current day’s trend of think global and act local, community scale projects such as smart grids are gaining potential. There is a future for closed loop energy self-sufficiency. Algae biofuel production can be integrated into smart building design (ex: BIQ in Hamburg, Germany), creating a green city system altogether with waste water treatment and carbon dioxide sequestration, combined with cosmetic and pharmaceutical business. The key is to be innovative.

A community based micro-farm or algae biorefinery not only gives localized green energy solutions but also creates social benefits. Perhaps in the future, algae will be grown and processed locally, without expensive shipping, or causing political instability as a result of shift of employment opportunities since they are grown locally. The money is in turn spent locally since the oil is used on site rather than export to overseas. In terms of management, the coordination over large spectrum of stakeholders involved in the mega project will forever postpone the initiation while in smaller scales, each case’s specialties will be taken into considerations and each project will have its own unique approach.

Global ‘Peak Oil’ production level now estimated to be reached by 2020 (USDOE 2009 and Economist 2009), while the share of the world’s oil consumption accounted for transportation alone has reached 61.5% in 2010[2]. Out of the transportation sector, 9% of oil is consumed by aircrafts, around 3% by trains and buses, personal vehicles consume more than 60% of gasoline used for transportation and the rest is consumed by commercial vehicles[3]. In the near future, the increasing automobile international trade and the social wealth of the developing world will see an increase of personal vehicles. With reaching the peak oil production worldwide, the initiative needs to be taken from each household and community instead of waiting for the government to solve the energy crisis.


[2] Page 11, Chapter 1, Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility: Global Report on Human Settlements 2013




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