Focusing on fast-growing and hardy microscopic algae, rather than the most oil-rich, could lead to cheaper and more efficient alternative fuel.
“Previously the main focus has been looking for oil-rich algae, but usually these are tastier to predators—like microscopic scoops of ice cream,” says Evan Stephens of the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience and Solar Biofuels Research Centre.
Australia could potentially become an oil exporter like the Middle East by devoting just one percent of land to algae farms, according to Stephens.
“The integration of new technologies means we can turn a broad range of algae into bio-crude oil that can be processed in existing oil refineries, so now the success of the industry comes down to rapid growth and low production costs.
“A major new frontier is in the biology and developing new strains—and we’ve already made significant advances through the identification of high-efficiency strains that have really stable growth, as well as being resistant to predators and temperature fluctuations.”
Stephens and colleagues have identified hundreds of native species of microscopic algae from freshwater and saltwater environments around Australia.
They have tested these against thousands of environmental conditions in the laboratory, creating a shortlist of top performers.
The researchers are putting the algae through their paces at a pilot processing plant that opened in Brisbane, Australia in April.
Traditionally, algae have been grown for health foods, aquaculture, and waste-water treatment but in recent years, algae oil has become the focus of an emerging biofuel industry.
Stephens says its production was expensive and viable commercial production had not yet been achieved in Australia or overseas.
“While we know that we can produce algae oil that is even higher quality than standard petroleum sources, we are working to increase the efficiency of production with the ultimate aim being to compete with fossil fuels dollar for dollar,” he says.
He says it was important to get economies of scale right before commercializing algae biofuels.
“There are still important challenges in science and engineering to be overcome to achieve the high efficiency needed to compete with conventional petroleum.”
The researchers at the Solar Biofuels Research Centre have recently published a study on the emerging microalgae industry, which appears in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology. Also they are collaborating with researchers from Bielefeld University and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, on work that is soon to be released in the Journal of Petroleum and Environmental Biotechnology.
Investors in the project include Finland’s Neste Oil, global engineering company KBR, Siemens, the Queensland Government, and Cement Australia.