Using Plain Old Algae As A Biofuel Source

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.

futurityEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Futurity. Author credit goes to University of Queensland.

Futurity features the latest discoveries by scientists at top research universities in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. The nonprofit site, which launched in 2009, is supported solely by its university partners in an effort to share research news directly with the public.

    • ted

      I’ve been following this wonderful concept for years. I feel this is one the most potential in renewable fuel resources and environmentally sound to produce. I look forward hearing more of it’s advances in the near future. Hopefully, large scale production that’s also viable – preferably before I die.

    • ted

      I’ve been following this wonderful concept for years. I feel this is one the most potential in renewable fuel resources and environmentally sound to produce. I look forward hearing more of it’s advances in the near future. Hopefully, large scale production that’s also viable – preferably before I die.

    • SolarPal

      My question is how does it compare to petroleum with regards to releasing of CO2 and other global warming gasses. I am not reading anything about this aspect.

    • moussetaffy

      Dag, the original report is behind a paywall. I try to check sources especially if a reporter has oversummarized.

    • tb thomas

      Biofuel produced from algae is carbon neutral, since it converts CO2 which has already been released into the atmosphere. Producing bio-diesel on the scale necessary to compete with petro-based transportation fuels will be nearly impossible on land. That said, if there is anyplace on the planet where it might work, Australia could be it. The big problem is, how do you get sufficient quantities of the necessary nutrients (including CO2 itself) to algae (growing in what are likely to be desert areas) to produce enough feedstock for the bio-diesel.

      The larger problem is pure myopia on the part of the scientific and investment community around the world. The key to derailing global warming is to begin producing bio-diesel at a price the petroleum industry can’t even match, in quantities sufficient to meet global demand (try 10-billion barrels a year). And keep in mind: we are running out of oil, and there are numerous critical products we get from oil that don’t involve burning it (chemicals and building materials for example). Shouldn’t we be preserving it for those uses, rather than burning it off as quickly as possible?

      It will require tens of thousands of square miles of sun-exposed surface area to produce that much bio-diesel, and there is only one place on the planet where it can be done cost-effectively: deep-ocean aquaculture (concentrated in equatorial regions of the world’s oceans). Why aren’t we doing it already? Who knows. (I sent an outline of how to do it to the US Department of Energy shortly after Obama took office. Still waiting for a reply.) In fact, before we discovered petroleum, the oil we burned in our lamps
      came from the deep oceans — in the form of whale-oil, produced by
      whales fed on plankton. All we have to do is immitate what the whales have been doing for millions of years, and just like that, we’ll have the sustainable non-polluting energy industry everyone says they want. (Why is this so hard?)

      I’ve been a lifelong Republican, and I know the only way to solve the (very real) global warming problem is using free-market economic forces — the same ones that produced the trans-continental railroad, big steel, electric power, and commercial aviation. The only forces our President understands are coercion and taxation, and that’s not going to solve the problem.

      If we had started building the infrastructure and manufacturing capacity to cultivate and harvest plankton in the deep oceans when Obama took office, we would very likely be scooping up market share for transportable fuels in big chunks by now — and watching the carbon footprint of the human race diminishing.

      We have the technology to do this already, most of it is low-tech off-the-shelf material. Extracting bio-diesel from algae (plankton) is about as complicated as making soap. My guess is the cost of commercializing this would be less than we’re spending on sending robots to wander around on Mars taking pictures and soil samples. Perhaps we should focus on preventing the climate collapse of the planet we’re living on now, and put the Mars mission on hold until we’ve got that problem solved.