Aussie algae could lead to future fuel production

aussieAUSTRALIA could soon become an oil exporter on par with the Middle East by devoting just 1 per cent of land to algae farms, according to University of Queensland Solar Biofuels Research Centre manager Dr Evan Stephens, who has identified a fast-growing and hardy microscopic algae.
Recent work by the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, headed by Dr Stephens, showed that a recently trialled native algae species could provide “real hope” for the development of commercially viable fuels from algae.
Dr Stephens and the team identified hundreds of native species of microscopic algae from freshwater and saltwater environments around Australia, testing them against thousands of simulated environmental conditionals in the laboratory to create a shortlist of top performing species.
“Previously the main focus has been looking for oil-rich algae, but usually these are tastier to predators – like microscopic scoops of ice cream,” Dr Stephens said in a statement. “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.”
The algae is being put through its paces at a pilot processing plant that opened in Brisbane in April, and the researchers have received international and domestic investment for the project.
However, Dr Stephens said that the process was not commercially viable and the production of algal biofuel was expensive.
“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 said.
“There are still important challenges in science and engineering to be overcome to achieve the high efficiency needed to compete with conventional petroleum.”
Algae are similar to fossil fuels in that, when burnt, they release carbon dioxide; however, the algae also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during their growth cycle. The CSIRO has reported that it could be “possible to produce algal biodiesel at a lower cost and with less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels”.
According to the CSIRO, research is currently underway to examine the quantity and quality of potential Australian algal resources from ponds and bioreactors, and sources of algae from locations including wastewater facilities, algal blooms and seaweed.
Meanwhile, Algae.Tec – an Australian biofuels company focussed on commercialising technology that produces algae to manufacture sustainable fuels such as bio diesel and green jet fuel – signed a deal in early July with Macquarie Generation to site an algae carbon capture and biofuels production facility alongside the 2460 megawatt Bayswater coal-fired power station in the Hunter Valley. In the first phase of the $140 million project, planned to begin in 2014, 400 closed tanks will be filled with carbon dioxide emitted from the power station to stimulate the growth of algae.
“At a time when all the petroleum refining capacity is closing down in New South Wales, this is the beginning of an era of renewable fuel which can be ‘grown’ in the state and can substitute imported petroleum products,” Algae.Tec executive chairman Roger Stroud said.
The bioreactors, which are about the size of shipping containers, are designed to grow non-GMO algae on an industrial scale for biofuel production. The resulting algal oil will be converted to biodiesel and hydrogenated to Grade A jet fuel at a biofuels production facility, while waste vegetable matter will be converted into pellets for cattle feed.