Carbon-neutral renewable liquid biofuels are needed to displace petroleum-derived transport fuels in the near future - which contribute to global warming and are of a limited availability. A promising alternative is conveyed by microalgae, the oil content of which may exceed 80% (w/wDW) - as compared with 5% of the best agricultural oil crops. However, current implementation of microalga-based systems has been economically constrained by their still poor volumetric efficiencies - which lead to excessively high costs, as compared with petrofuel prices. Technological improvements of such processes are thus critical - and this will require a multiple approach, both on the biocatalyst and bioreactor levels. Several bottlenecks indeed exist at present that preclude the full industrial exploitation of microalgal cells: the number of species that have been subjected to successful genetic transformation is scarce, which hampers a global understanding (and thus a rational design) of novel blue-biotechnological processes; the mechanisms that control regulation of gene expression are not fully elucidated, as required before effective bioprocesses based on microalgae can be scaled-up; and new molecular biology tools are needed to standardize genetic modifications in microalgae - including efficient nuclear transformation, availability of promoter or selectable marker genes, and stable expression of transgenes. On the other hand, a number of pending technological issues are also present: the relatively low microalga intrinsic lipid productivity; the maximum cell concentration attainable; the efficiency of harvest and sequential recovery of bulk lipids; and the possibility of by-product upgrade. This review briefly covers the state of the art regarding microalgae toward production of biofuels, both from the point of view of the microalgal cell itself and of the supporting bioreactor; and discusses, in a critical manner, current limitations and promising perspectives in this field.
- Genetic engineering
- Process engineering