iGEM Concordia 2014


Greenhouse gases (notably CO2, CH4, and N2O) have increased in their atmospheric concentration since pre-industrial era (Ciais et al. 2013). Although there can be natural causes to an increased atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, the current increase in concentration has been attributed to anthropogenic emissions (Ciais et al. 2013). Such an increase is a serious problem as an elevated concentration of greenhouse gases will lead to an increase in average temperature (Ciais et al. 2013). An increase in average temperatures will lead to many problems such as the melting of glaciers and subsequent rising of sea-levels as well as thawing of the permafrost that contains twice the amount of carbon found currently in our atmosphere (Ciais et al. 2013). A notable producer of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels (Ciais et al. 2013). Due to the necessity of fossil fuels, renewable sources of energy such as biofuels have been investigated as an alternative to biofuels. Biofuels are not always the best alternative to fossil fuels as seen in the case of palm oil (De Souza, S. P., Pacca, S., De Avila, M. T., & Borges, J. L. B., 2010).

Oil companies are currently looking to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic (Schiermeier, 2012). It is currently believed that the Arctic holds up 13% of the planet’s recoverable oil and 30% of its gas (Schiermeier, 2012). The current issue with extracting fossil fuels from the arctic is that spills would be harder to control and remediate in comparison to warmer regions (Schiermeier, 2012). An example of such a spill would be the Exxon Valdez offshore spill that occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska on March 1989 (Li, H., & Boufadel, M. C., 2010).

Biofuels have been investigated as an alternative to fossil fuels. The first generation of biofuels were derived from edible plants (Lü, J., Sheahan, C., & Fu, P., 2011). Ethanol could be extracted from edible plants by fermentation with yeast and lipids from oil seeds and plants were extracted and transformed into biodiesel (Lü, J., Sheahan, C., & Fu, P., 2011). This method of creating biodiesel, however, was undesirable as the energy required to generate fuel was greater than the fuel return (Lü, J., Sheahan, C., & Fu, P., 2011). Using edible crops also meant that there would be an eventual increase in food price as crops such as wheat and sugar would be diverted into fuel production (Lü, J., Sheahan, C., & Fu, P., 2011).

Generations of Biofuels - Energy from waste and wood. (n.d.). Retrieved from:; Lee, R. a., & Lavoie, J.-M. (2013). From first- to third-generation biofuels: Challenges of producing a commodity from a biomass of increasing complexity. Animal Frontiers, 3(2), 6–11. doi:10.2527/af.2013-0010

An example of a first generation biofuel is palm oil, which is currently causing devastating effects to tropical ecosystems through deforestation (Mekhilef, S., Siga, S., & Saidur, R., 2011). Converting rainforests into agricultural land for the production of palm oil has lead to significant emission of greenhouse gases as tropical ecosystems hold up to 340 billion tonnes of carbon, which is 40 times the emissions resulting from fossil fuels (Mekhilef, S et al., 2011; Gibbs, H. K. et al, 2008). Every time a tropical forest is converted into a agricultural land, the carbon the forests hold is released into the atmosphere (Mekhilef, S et al., 2011; Gibbs, H. K. et al, 2008). Although there are benefits to using palm oil instead of fossil fuels (e.g. palm oil production in itself releases very little greenhouse gases), the disadvantages poses as serious of a problem as the burning of fossil fuels.

The search for other biofuels has lead to the creation of second, third and fourth generation biofuels. Second generation biofuels are produced from non-crops growing on non-arable land, whereas third generation are biofuels generated from micro-algae and fourth-generation are generated from genetically modifying species of the second and third-generation (Lü, J., Sheahan, C., & Fu, P., 2011). A promising producer of biofuel is microalgae. Microalgae has a high lipid content (60-70%), high photosynthetic efficiency, high growth rate and is able to survive harsh climates. The algae is also more likely to have less negative impacts on the environment compared to other sources of biofuel (Schenk, P. M. et al, 2008). This is a result of its high yield and ability to be harvest almost all-year round, and the possibility of creating algal bioreactors on non-arable land (Schenk, P. M. et al, 2008). Although microalgae has the potential to meet global energy demands, it has not yet been commercialize (Yang, J., Xu, M., Zhang, X., Hu, Q., Sommerfeld, M., & Chen, Y. , 2011).

NASA Ames Research Centre

The use of fossil fuels has increased the number of greenhouse gas emissions significantly. To overcome this, research has been done to find an alternative to fossil fuels. As of today, most biofuels have been found to be detrimental to the environment. However, microalgae seems promising in its ability to produce high quality of lipids easily. By exploiting microalgae’s ability to sustainably produce biodiesel, it may be possible to scale their production and aid in meeting global energy demands and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. We aim to collaborate with the UN mandated Future Earth initiative to tap the potential of sustainable microalgae biofuel production. More information about Future Earth and Concordia University's role can be found at: The Future Earth Website & Montreal Gazette Article

  • [1] Ciais, P., Sabine, C., Bala, G., Bopp, L., Brovkin, V., Canadell, J., ... & Wania, R. (2013). Carbon and other biogeochemical cycles. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  • [2] De Souza, S. P., Pacca, S., De Avila, M. T., & Borges, J. L. B. (2010). Greenhouse gas emissions and energy balance of palm oil biofuel. Renewable Energy, 35(11), 2552-2561.
  • [3] Schiermeier, Q. (2012). The great Arctic oil race begins. Nature, 482(7383), 13-14.
  • [4] Li, H., & Boufadel, M. C. (2010). Long-term persistence of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in two-layer beaches. Nature Geoscience, 3(2), 96-99.
  • [5] Lü, J., Sheahan, C., & Fu, P. (2011). Metabolic engineering of algae for fourth generation biofuels production. Energy & Environmental Science, 4(7), 2451. doi:10.1039/c0ee00593b
  • [6] Mekhilef, S., Siga, S., & Saidur, R. (2011). A review on palm oil biodiesel as a source of renewable fuel. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 15(4), 1937-1949.
  • [7]Gibbs, H. K., Johnston, M., Foley, J. A., Holloway, T., Monfreda, C., Ramankutty, N., & Zaks, D. (2008). Carbon payback times for crop-based biofuel expansion in the tropics: the effects of changing yield and technology.Environmental Research Letters, 3(3), 034001.
  • [8]Schenk, P. M., Thomas-Hall, S. R., Stephens, E., Marx, U. C., Mussgnug, J. H., Posten, C., ... & Hankamer, B. (2008). Second generation biofuels: high-efficiency microalgae for biodiesel production. Bioenergy Research, 1(1), 20-43.
  • [9] Yang, J., Xu, M., Zhang, X., Hu, Q., Sommerfeld, M., & Chen, Y. (2011). Life-cycle analysis on biodiesel production from microalgae: water footprint and nutrients balance. Bioresource technology, 102(1), 159-165.
  • [10] NASA Ames Research Center. (2011, Jan 12). J. Craig Venter on Synthetic Biology at NASA Ames [video file]. Retrieved from:

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